Veterans fighting private wars against drug use, mental health issues need support, judge says
SCRANTON — Not all of the battles fought by the men and women who serve in America’s armed forces end on foreign shores.
Some follow them home. Referring to the situation faced by many veterans today as a crisis, Lackawanna County President Judge Michael J. Barrasse reminded about 100 people gathered for a Veterans Day observance on Courthouse Square that as much as U.S. soldiers, sailors and airmen are heroes, they are also human and feel real pain — and not just from bullets.
“As one veteran stated, you don’t get a Purple Heart for being mentally shot,” he said.
That’s why Lackawanna
County has a veterans treatment court program, the judge said.
Whether it’s homelessness, mental health issues, emotional problems or drug or alcohol addiction, the rate is higher among veterans than among the general population, he said.
“We started veterans court as a result of that — to make
sure we can say we leave no soldier behind,” Barrasse said. “It’s not just about distant lands. It’s about here in our own country.”
Barrasse delivered the keynote address at the Veterans Day event, which the American Legion Koch-conley Post 121 sponsors annually.
The crowd joined Paulette Costa in singing “The StarSpangled Banner” and other patriotic songs. Near the end of the ceremony, wreaths were placed at the northern entrance to Veterans Memorial Plaza.
Barrasse rattled off a series of troubling statistics: More than 45,000 veterans and active-duty service members killed themselves in the past six years, a rate of 22 a day; the suicide rate for those ages 18 to 34 increased 80% from 2005 to 2016, and the risk of suicide nearly doubles in the year after a veteran leaves active duty.
Veterans coming home from overseas tours might seek treatment for their external scars but not for the internal ones, such as posttraumatic stress disorder, he said.
Instead, they will try to take care of it by self-medicating, which can spiral down into addiction and, too often, entanglement with the criminal justice system, Barrasse said. That’s where veterans court comes in.
“These veterans almost universally have lived good, productive lives, except for drug and alcohol and mental health issues often directly related to their service to their country,” he said.
Barrasse said one thing veterans court battles is the military culture, which teaches individuals to push through pain and put others above self. However, veterans court is a place where seeking help is the norm, said the judge, who encouraged other veterans to become involved as volunteer mentors for those enrolled in the program.
“We must reach out to our veterans in distress and say it’s OK, that it takes courage to make change and ask for help,” Barrasse said. “We need to stop the stigma and talk ... about how we can help the fallen veteran.”
In brief remarks, U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-8, Moosic, discussed his visit to Normandy in June for the 75th anniversary of the D-day invasion, using it as a jumping-off point to talk about the Constitution and the freedoms that Americans enjoy.
Every drop of blood, sweat and tears shed by veterans was shed to protect the Constitution, he said.
“In fact, the only oath I took in my job is to protect and defend that very Constitution — not just selected parts of it, every single word,” Cartwright said. “If we really want to do a good job of honoring our veterans, let’s all stand together in defense of our American Constitution.”