The war veteran was shocked when he learned about the potential legal consequences if his domestic violence case resulted in a conviction.
Attorney Martha Hom recalls telling her client: “There’s a civil protection order right now. If you get convicted, you cannot ever possess a firearm, even if it’s a misdemeanor.”
Hom said the veteran was nearly speechless. The military and weapons were ingrained in his life.
But a federal law, enacted in 1996 and known as the Lautenberg Amendment for its sponsor, former Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J, prohibits anyone convicted of domestic violence from carrying a firearm.
Hom told that story in April at an Akron Beacon Journal focus group on war issues and, later, gave the newspaper permission to use her name and comments.
She said she has seen more and more veterans return from the Iraq-Afghanistan wars with what one veteran described as “shaken adult syndrome” from a traumatic brain injury suffered when a roadside bomb has detonated.
Hom’s vignette is one of the reasons Akron’s municipal court judges have signed off on the creation of a special veterans court program with the prospective name Veterans Treatment Court.
Judge Jerry Larson, who was elected to the bench in 2009 and served previously as a city prosecutor and police legal adviser, will direct the court and its caseload.
It is expected to be up and running by the end of the year.
Akron’s veterans court apparently will be the sixth in Ohio.
Mansfield, Youngstown and Hamilton County officially were certified by the Ohio Supreme Court for their special veterans dockets through 2011. Since then, the high court has begun working on uniform procedures for all specialized courts to follow, and Cleveland, Columbus and Akron veterans courts must wait until the procedures are adopted before becoming certified.
The nation’s first veterans court opened in 2008 in Buffalo, N.Y.
Larson said its objective is to help the many struggling vets — who commit misdemeanors when they return to the United States and suddenly face new obstacles after serving their country in combat — make a better adjustment to home life.
Larson said the court will help vets in two proposed categories of offenses.
Dismissal of charges
First, a diversion program for nonviolent offenders will lead to the dismissal of charges if the vet successfully completes treatment or counseling by the Summit County Veterans Service Commission or the regional branch of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The same conditions are planned for offenders who commit assaults, domestic violence or other violent offenses, provided the victim approves, Larson said.
Second, a post-conviction program will be in place, in which a vet who pleads guilty to an offense may have the sentence modified or suspended by successfully completing treatment.
Larson said no hard numbers have been kept as to how many veterans have gone through the local justice system. Judges are starting to do so now — as a screening requirement in the initial court appearance — by asking the defendant if he or she is a veteran.
The latest numbers on the military exemplify the need for the court.
The 2010 American Community Survey shows the 10-year wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have added nearly 2,000 combat veterans to Summit County’s total of 42,500 military veterans. These new veterans have a new set of problems.
Unlike the massive numbers of troops generated from a draft, as was the case in World War II and Vietnam, the United States over the past decade has relied on a small number of volunteers, returning them repeatedly to the front, as often as five times over 10 years. In many cases, this has prevented them from returning to a predictable life, in turn causing job, income and family stress.
National data show the most recent vets have the highest unemployment rate of all war veterans — 13 percent — and are returning with high rates of injuries, post-traumatic stress and alcohol problems.
“We have a higher number of veterans returning to America than we have had in several decades, with the current wars we are fighting, and more veterans are returning with special needs,” Larson said.
Treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injury, substance abuse and reacclimating to civilian life are some of the areas in which the Iraq-Afghanistan vets need help, Larson said.
Drawing a parallel to the treatment offenders receive in the municipal justice system’s drug court, which has been in operation since 1995, Larson said, “It is so much better and more beneficial than locking them up for the weekend, then tossing them back out on the street.”
Attorney Hom said she supports the planned veterans court and sees a profound need for the help it can provide.
“It’s sad to see that when they are discharged, they alone are left to deal with problems or issues they or their families may not fully appreciate,” Hom said.
Does your family have someone who has served in the military or do you know someone who has? What are their most pressing issues? What can or should be done to help our soldiers and their families adjust more effectively?
Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.