HUDSON, Wis. — There’s a phrase Pete Orput uses when talking about combat veterans who struggle with things like post-traumatic stress disorder and chemical dependency.

It goes like this: If military service broke people serving their country, then it’s society’s responsibility to fix them — even when those struggles lead to criminal behavior.

“None of these guys were criminals when they went in,” said Orput, who serves as Washington County attorney in Minnesota. “So what made them a criminal when they got out?”

It’s a philosophy that led Orput to launch a veterans court in Washington County, where the program has been running for five years and counts 60 graduates.

St. Croix County District Attorney Michael Nieskes said he’d spoken before with Orput about a veterans program and the Minnesota prosecutor’s philosophy resonated deeply. So after he had a unique experience with a veteran who ran afoul of the law, Nieskes and St. Croix County Veterans Service Office Phil Landgraf mapped out the possibility of a program in their jurisdiction.

“It was an opportunity to help with a very deserving segment of our population,” Nieskes said.

St. Croix County District Attorney Michael Nieskes will review evidence in the investigation of an officer-involved shooting death of a northern Wisconsin teenager. File photo
St. Croix County District Attorney Michael Nieskes will review evidence in the investigation of an officer-involved shooting death of a northern Wisconsin teenager. File photo

That concept — a diversion program for veterans — is up and running now in St. Croix County. While elements of the two county’s programs differ, the rationale is the same: providing a second chance for people who, if not for their military service, might not have ended up in the criminal justice system.

Landgraf said the program “has a lot of potential to change a lot of veterans’ lives positively.”

“The military teaches people to be incredibly self-sufficient and teaches people to not ask for help,” he said. “Sometimes people need that help.”

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), more than half of the veterans who enter the criminal justice system have either mental health issues or substance abuse problems. A 2015 VA report stated two-thirds of jailed combat veterans had been told they had a mental disorder. The same report showed property crimes, drug offenses and violent crimes were the leading incidents that led former service members to jail.

Orput said the struggles Vietnam veterans endured after returning from service were seared into his memory.

“Start throwing them in jail like the Vietnam vets?” he said. “I won’t.”

Treatment as centerpiece

A St. Croix County diversion program will be offered to veterans accused of some crimes. Nieskes said mandatory minimums on operating-while-intoxicated or domestic abuse charges prohibit those cases from being dismissed. He’s also not going to dismiss felonies.

But veterans arrested in St. Croix County could have other charges dismissed if they abide the agreements, which last anywhere from six months to two years.

As in Washington County, the program’s linchpin is participation in a treatment program through the VA hospital in Minneapolis.

“The VA is very in tune with some of these issues that some of these veterans and returning veterans have,” Landgraf said. “To me, it makes a lot of sense to point them in the direction of the VA.”

Ron Ramos, a Baldwin resident who served eight years in the Marine Corps, said an incentivized program to get veterans mental health or substance abuse programming at the VA could be just the motivation they need to get help.

Their training and ingrained military culture can be barriers to that, he said.

Ramos, a veteran of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, explained how military self-reliance often prevents soldiers from seeking medical help during their service because of the perception that they’d be shirking their responsibility and hurting their unit’s cohesion.

He said that mentality doesn’t go away when those soldiers rotate back into home life.

“You don't want to burden other people with your problems,” said Ramos, who serves as commander of VFW Post 10818 in New Richmond.

Family responsibilities, bills and a new job can create a culture shock that are compounded by a struggle with the loss of identity they held in the service as a soldier. That can create a toxic mix, he said.

“Unfortunately, we see it more often than not,” Ramos said.

Landgraf said VA services can lead to remarkable turnarounds for veterans in crisis.

“Then they can move on and we don’t have to do what we did to a lot of these Vietnam guys when they came back,” he said. “We can’t make the same mistake twice."

Variations on the same concept

Orput, a Marine Corps veteran, developed Washington County’s program after visiting a court in New York for veterans struggling with demons stemming from combat experience.

It’s a concept to which he needed no introduction.

Washington County Attorney Pete Orput announced a county lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies Nov. 30. Katie Nelson /Forum News Service
Washington County Attorney Pete Orput announced a county lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies Nov. 30. Katie Nelson /Forum News Service

A Vietnam veteran who struggled with alcohol after returning from war, Orput recalls how he had to resist self-destructive tendencies during his postwar struggles.

“Just pour booze on it,” he said reflecting on those days.

Then someone recommended he attend meetings.

“Those guys really turned me around,” he said.

Once Washington County veterans are identified in the process — either during the arrest, while being booked or at their arraignment — they may be eligible for veterans court.

People do get turned away. Veterans court isn’t an invitation for former service members to commit crimes and skate, Orput said.

Orput, along with a team of court officials, a Vietnam veteran and the veterans service officer make the call on whether to accept the defendant into veterans court. If offenses are serious, there will be a debate.

More often than not, however, Orput said he’s willing to take the risk — provided it’s not a case that calls for a presumptive prison sentence.

“I’ve never been burned on it,” he said.

Those who sign on for veterans court aren’t getting off easy. Orput said the commitment is real and the work in treatment is hard.

“If you work hard, I’ll be right there next to you helping,” he said.

Veterans who agree to participate in the court meet with a VA outreach member who arranges an evaluation. Orput then examines the evaluation and helps devise a plan for the veteran, which usually programs run one to two years.

Treatment involves support groups, maybe medication. Defendants come in once a month for court, where the VA gives status updates.

Sometimes defendants screw up. Orput said that’s not a dealbreaker, especially for veterans who are generally adept at following superiors’ orders.

“When you direct them to do something, they get it done,” he said.

St. Croix County’s program runs differently.

Rather than being a dedicated court for veterans, Nieskes and Diversion Program Coordinator Lisa Multhauf arranged their concept as a diversion program with different pathways.

Identified veterans accused of a misdemeanor can make an initial appearance and be released on bond with conditions that they enroll in VA programming. If things go according to plan, the veteran can enter into a diversion agreement that — if completed successfully through treatment — can result in no charges being filed.

But Nieskes said there is flexibility in the program that allows for, in the example of a veteran getting into a bar fight, some restitution being paid to the victim and a criminal charge. But if the veteran has an underlying problem, the program can allow additional consequences to be lessened after successful treatment.

“There are some things we can do to assist,” Nieskes said.

Depending on the outcome, some veterans diversion program defendants may be able to avoid turning up in the state’s online court records system, Multhauf said.

As in Washington County, the key in getting veterans involved in the St. Croix County diversion program is identifying them.

Nieskes said veterans may either be under the false impression that they could lose VA benefits if they admit their service background or battle other struggles.

“There is a shame” some veterans experience, he said. “The don’t see this as related back to their service time.”

Nieskes said he doesn’t know how often the program will be used, but said St. Croix County’s veteran population didn’t build a critical mass to warrant a specialized court like Washington County.

“We’re trying to take a different way,” he said.

Yet both prosecutors said the motivation is the same.

“If we broke them, we need to fix them,” Orput said.

Ramos said he backs the program and sees the potential for positive outcomes stemming from difficult circumstances.

“Most service members are pretty good people,” he said. “They just may be struggling.”