For the recruits, the military conditioning begins in boot camp.
A drill instructor pushing all the stress buttons, barking commands, screaming, scolding, demanding mental and physical fitness. It is the way toughness has been tested for decades. It has become a time-honored way to prepare the young soldier for the rigors of combat.
But weeks later, several thousand miles away from basic training, for those thrust into combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, many discover that nothing truly prepared them for the pressures, dangers and mortality of war.
Army specialist Thomas McCune had the dangerous job of looking for bombs every day. His year-long mission: IED patrol in Afghanistan.
He pauses often when recounting those days.
“You remember the bad, somebody getting blown up, somebody getting hurt, especially if it was a good friend, or you made a certain call,” said McCune.
The daily pressure began to take its toll on Spc. McCune. He survived the combat missions, but the mounting symptoms of his PTSD really kicked in when he got home. That’s when he started using heroin and his life began to fall apart.
McCune shook his head and said ““yes, I was almost self-medicating definitely, to quiet my mind, quiet the thoughts, quiet the nightmares. I was doing it for all the wrong reasons, but at the time I thought it was the right reason.”
McCune is far from alone.
Recent statistics show that 1 in 6 vets who served in Iraq or Afghanistan are addicted to drugs or alcohol. When you see a brother-in-arms carried to a medivac chopper, the carnage hits home. Experts find a direct link from combat trauma to the use of drugs
Walking near the county courthouse in Canton, Ohio, Marine Sgt. Orion Masselli recalls his time serving as a fire team leader in Afghanistan. He, too, tried to drown out the noise of his PTSD with substance abuse. But when he returned to Stark County, the booze didn’t work anymore as his depression cycled downward.
Masselli said that the depression got so bad that “I loaded the pistol up and got in my car and I was driving around. I found a parking lot and I was just sitting there with that gun and its sort of getting real at that point.”
This tough Marine felt he was out of options. Luckily, fate intervened.
“My daughter’s mom got really worried since she hadn’t heard from me and called the cops to do a welfare check. They came out and found me and I just kind of broke down crying. The officer said just shut the car off, it’s all right. So I shut the car off and put my hands on the wheel.
He said “so where is the gun”? I said it’s over here on the seat. He said “I’m going to come around and take the gun, don’t move”. He took it and checked and there was a round in there.”
Suicide attempts by veterans are not rare. One in 5 Iraq and Afghanistan vets suffers from post traumatic stress disorder or significant mental anguish.
For a growing number of vets facing a legal crisis and jail time for breaking the law, there is a solution.
In Cuyahoga County it’s called “Veterans Treatment Court”. In Summit County they call it “Valor Court” and in Stark County it’s known as “Honor Court.”
We met Tom McCune as he was waiting for his case to be called in Cleveland. Presiding over this special court for vets is Judge Michael Jackson, a Marine lieutenant and company commander during his service in Vietnam.
In the team meeting before court begins, most of the support staff are veterans, from the prosecutors to the parole officer. In addition, every former soldier in this program is assigned a mentor who is also a veteran. Terry Whalen, a Marine who served in Vietnam, is now Tom McCune’s mentor. For each volunteer mentor, this mission is very personal.
Terry Whalen choked back tears as he explained, “it is important to me that they succeed. Because we had our problems when we came back (from Vietnam), most of us. I want this man to make it.’
Judge Michael Jackson said “that shared military experience translates into lower recidivism, better citizens, and it works.”
Down in Akron, Judge Amy Corrigall-Jones runs Valor Court for the veterans in Summit County. She uses the same formula — tough love, compassion and consequences.
Said Judge Corrigal Jones, “at a minimum, this is what we can do for them when they have gone overseas, suffered physical injuries, mental injuries, what they’ve viewed, what they’ve had to see, what they’ve witnessed, what they are not allowed to talk about. Of all the people in our community, they are the ones who deserve this the most.”
Army vet Mike Kohut was facing prison time when he was referred to Valor Court. He readily admits that the program saved him.
“I struggled in the beginning. It was tough love, but it was love,” Kohut told the vets waiting in the courtroom. Looking at the judge and her staff he added, “you guys got me together, you saved my life, period.”
Down in Canton, the sound of drums shook the rafters inside Honor Court in recognition of Veterans Day. Navy veteran Trevor Meyer led warrior beat for the entire court staff and the vets in the Honor Court program. In that circle beating their drums, Sgt.Orion Masselli and his four-year-old daughter, Allie.
Masselli has graduated from Honor Court and his life is back on track. “People tell you all the time reach out and ask for help and you just don’t do it,” said Masselli. “But I think coming from one veteran to another that makes a big difference. It sure worked for me.”
Another Honor Court graduate, Stephen Rangel, approached the bench with a large floral wreath and asked Judge Taryn Heath for permission to address the courtroom.
With a huge smile on his face, Rangel said, “I have honor today. I have dignity today. Thanks to people like you your Honor, I have my life back. I would like to present this to you and the rest of the team in Honor Court just for some gratitude. I honestly don’t know where I would be today if I didn’t have people like you in my life. Thank you so much.”
The applause and cheers could be heard all across the courthouse.
Judge Heath said, “our mantra here is restoring honor, dignity and lives. So, these vets are a group of individuals who were taught a certain values and codes of honor and that’s in there somewhere down deep in them. We are just bringing that back out.”
Meanwhile, back on the streets of Cleveland, Tom McCune is getting his life back because of Veterans court, one day at a time.
Said McCune, “so many bridges I thought I burned. Truly I thought I burned them. It’s nice to have them back, especially family, relatives, support groups, friends are starting to come back in to my life that I haven’t interacted since high school. That’s because the real me is back.”