Wachtler: Compassion in the courts for veterans

Members of the New York State Courts color

Members of the New York State Courts color guard march through the central jury room of the Cohalan Court Complex in Central Islip at the start of a graduation ceremony for veterans in a new rehabilitation program developed by the Suffolk County Veterans Court. (Oct 16, 2012) (Credit: Daniel Brennan)

Lawrence V. Cullen died last week.

When New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman inaugurated the Veterans Court Program in 2009 he told the story of Larry Cullen, who, many years before as a 17-year-old, went to the courthouse on Sutphin Boulevard in Queens and enlisted in the Marine Corps. He was sent to Vietnam, where he manned a helicopter machine gun. Four years later he came back on a stretcher, severely wounded both mentally and physically.

He received a Purple Heart, Combat Action Ribbon, a Navy Presidential Unit Citation, National Defense Ribbon and a Vietnam Service Ribbon -- but returned from the war at age 21 with no marketable skills. He was able to get work in a bar, however, and one day on his way home from work, intoxicated, he picked up a stray dog. He wanted to bring the dog home with him on a bus, which led to an altercation with the driver -- and involvement with the police. Larry Cullen was taken to jail.


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Because it was the beginning of the Fourth of July weekend, he had to wait four days to be arraigned. With the array of charges against him, he could have been sentenced to several years in prison. Instead, Justice Jonah Goldstein, who learned of this young man's story, lectured and guided him. He encouraged Cullen to go back to school. His case was adjourned from time to time so that the judge could monitor his behavior and progress. The young veteran went to college, and then to law school, and after several more years, he became a judge himself. Up until his death on Nov. 25, he sat on the Supreme Court bench on Sutphin Boulevard, the very courthouse where he first enlisted over 50 years ago.

Cullen was one of our inspirations for the establishment of the Veterans Court Program -- a program created to see to it that veterans who commit nonviolent crimes as a result of combat-related afflictions are sent into treatment and not prison.

With the cessation of hostilities in Iraq and ultimately Afghanistan, there will be some 100,000 troops returning home. This will be in addition to the more than 2 million who have fought in those wars, with 800,000 having served more than one tour.

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 35 percent of those soldiers and Marines who have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan will ultimately suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, with 20,000 new sufferers for each year the wars last. Despite the heroic efforts of Veterans Affairs, less than 40 percent of service members diagnosed with PTSD receive mental health services.

As a result -- and because of the lag between the time of trauma and the reporting of it, which can range from days to many years (much longer when people are still in the military) -- we have yet to experience the full impact of this malady on our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in particular and society in general. PTSD can lead to depression, and problems of memory and cognition. In addition, and as a unique characteristic of the current conflicts, the concussion of car bombings and other explosive devices can cause a physical trauma to the brain that, in turn, can cause acute mental illness.

Tragically, thousands of these veterans will not seek treatment. Instead they will self-medicate with alcohol and drugs in an attempt to cure themselves or simply to forget the blood and horror. The inevitable consequence of alcoholism and addiction, known as co-occurring disorders with PTSD, is domestic violence, homelessness and, inevitably, interaction with the criminal justice system.

The state's unified court system has established Veterans Courts in Kings, Queens, Nassau and Suffolk counties, with an effort to supplement these courts with treatment, counseling, job placement, housing and other resources to further the rehabilitation of these men and women who have given so much.

In mourning Larry Cullen, and his remarkable heroism, we should remind ourselves that we have a responsibility of concern for those wounded warriors who, with proper treatment, can be restored to a fruitful and productive life.

Sol Wachtler, a former chief judge of New York State, is a veteran of the Korean War.

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