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Constable's Notebook - February 2008

A recent New York Times article shocked our collective consciousness with a report that 121 veterans have been linked to recent killings on American streets. It comes as no surprise to law enforcement and mental health officials who regularly come in contact with veterans who are homeless, have substance abuse issues, and have been arrested for a variety of offenses ranging from public intoxication and DWI, assault, domestic violence and murder. Medical experts agree that no one returns from serving in a war zone unchanged and the best estimates are that as many as 25 to 30 percent of returning veterans suffer from mental illness that makes transitioning back to civilian life far more difficult. Sometimes the lingering effects of war take months or even years to manifest themselves. The Travis County Sheriff’s Office estimates that nearly 200 veterans are booked into jail every month for a wide variety of offenses. Many veterans are arrested repeatedly for minor offenses and don’t realize or will not admit that they suffer from the mental or physical effects of serving their country in a war zone.

Last November, Travis County Constable Maria Canchola (Pct. 4) initiated an effort to identify veterans when they are first arrested and have them evaluated by professionals at the Veterans Administration for any mental or physical effects of having been in or near combat and get them the services they need and are entitled. Constable Canchola’s partner of 25 years is a Vietnam veteran who became an alcoholic and acquired an arrest record before it was determined that he suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which was then known as Shell Shock. She understands how important it is that returning veterans understand the effects of having been in a war zone, that they be evaluated and, if needed, get treatment before PTSD or other mental or physical issues make returning to a normal life more difficult, if not impossible to achieve. She also knows how difficult it can be to get veterans to come to grips with these issues.

Constable Canchola has convened a working group that includes representatives from the Sheriff’s Office, Community Supervision and Corrections, Pre-Trial Services, U.T. School of Law, Veterans Services Office and the Veterans Administration. Their task is to establish a process to identify and provide assistance to veterans when they are first arrested. These discussions have revealed that many returning veterans do not understand what services they are entitled to or where to turn for assistance. Some veterans have had to contest their denial of services or correct errors in their discharge papers. Others have reported being offered early discharges not knowing that they would not be eligible for VA benefits.

Local communities are just beginning to witness the largest return of military personnel from combat since the Vietnam War. While we all salute our troops for their service to our nation, we must understand that for many the transition back to civilian live will be difficult and they will also require our understanding, patience and support.

Local veterans with questions or issues can contact the Travis County Veterans Services Office at 854-9340. Their mission is to help veterans and their dependents understand what benefits are available through the VA and how services can be accessed. Questions may also be directed to the Department of Veterans Affairs at 800-827-1000. Constable Maria Canchola can be reached at 854-9488 or Maria.Canchola@co.travis.tx.us.



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