CAPITOL — As the service officer at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1895 in Rotterdam, Ginger Kusek regularly sees veterans who need help getting getting matched with Veterans’ Administration counseling services or a need like housing.
She knows enough about veterans and their needs upon leaving the military, and what can go wrong, to support state legislation to expand access to the state’s veterans courts, which seek to divert veterans who have been arrested into programs that help them get treatment for underlying issues, rather than seeing them sent to jail.
The adjustment to life outside the military can be rough, even for people who haven’t experienced the trauma of combat, said Kusek, who is retired from a nearly 39-year U.S. Army career, and is a former post and district commander in the VFW.
“The military is a very structured way of life, so when you’re coming out, it’s a bit adjustment, even if you have not seen combat,” she said. “Individuals may start down the wrong path, and they end up in the veterans court. What that does is get them into programs that the veteran may need.”
“Veterans a lot of times are very proud, and may not ask for help,” Kusek said.
Getting more people into veterans courts has long been a goal of the VFW, American Legion and other veterans’ organizations, and they’re making progress.
A bill that would expand access to those special courts was passed by the state Assembly this week.
There are presently 35 veterans courts in the state, including ones located in Albany and Rensselaer counties. The legislation, which still needs approval from the state Senate and a signature by the governor before becoming law, would allow veterans in adjoining counties to have their cases transferred to one of those courts. That means veterans in Schenectady and Saratoga counties could qualify to go to court in one of those counties.
The overarching goal is to steer veterans who have run afoul of the criminal justice system into treatment programs for any underlying condition that may have contributed to their arrest — drug or alcohol use, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, or mental illness — rather than sentence them to incarceration.
Moving a case across county lines would require agreement of both the sending and receiving counties’ district attorneys. The bill would prohibit transfer to a veterans’ court of cases where the arrest is for a family offense within a household.
Judges who handle veterans’ courts have special training and the ability to make referrals for specific treatments, similar to how the state’s drug courts operate. Those who complete treatment — which can also include peer-to-peer counseling and mentoring — ccan participate in a small court-based graduation ceremony.
Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, was a co-sponsor of the legislation. Santabarbara, who is a member of the Assembly Veterans’ Affairs Committee, served in the U.S. Army Reserve from 1990 to 1998.
“We owe a debt of gratitude to the brave men and women who defend our great nation and we must acknowledge the transition back to civilian life isn’t always easy. Combat experiences sometimes take a great toll on their well-being,” Santabarbara said. “The trauma veterans experience often leads to mental illness, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder that can affect decisions in daily life. This bill provides New York veterans with the support and resources they need, rather than leaving them in a system that cannot support their unique needs.”
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