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Veterans task force focuses on crime and suicide

Published July 10, 2013 5:01 pm

Veteran affairs • Vets treated differently than others in court system because they are different, judge says.
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The state Veterans Reintegration Task Force on Wednesday discussed how to help military veterans involved in criminal proceedings and reduce suicide among their ranks.

Veterans who commit crimes can suffer untreated mental health problems and post traumatic stress disorder, self-medicate with drugs and alcohol and feel anxious and angry, said U.S. District Court Magistrate Paul Warner.

He presides over a federal veterans court that involves misdemeanor and some felony cases that normally are heard in state courts. Defendants can stay out of jail or get lesser sentences if they get treatment, usually at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City.

"Why treat vets any differently from others?" Warner asked. "They are different. In most instances, they were sent into harm's way in an insane environment, often with multiple deployments, and they come back damaged. When they get help, everything changes."

The court can send such defendants to the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Salt Lake City, where "one-stop shopping" can help patients with serious physical and mental issues as well as "things as common as dentures or hearing aids," he said.

As for suicide, vets face a shortage of primary care physicians and psychiatrists, particularly in rural areas.

"Primary care is central. For rural vets, the average distance to get to a VA hospital is 60 miles," said Jeremy Vogt, project director for a program developed by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE). "There's a higher risk for military services members who are going back to homes where there's not a lot of care available."

Steve Allen, a psychologist at the VA Medical Center, recommended that practitioners ask patients if they are veterans, whether they experienced combat and if anyone in their family is deployed.

Also, he added, "ask about suicide. If you don't ask, you don't know. If you do ask, people are relieved they can talk about it."

WICHE has developed a suicide-prevention "tool kit" that can help medical providers and others intervene if they suspect someone is suicidal.

pegmcentee@sltrib.com