Unique Program Aims to Help Vets in Trouble with the Law

Updated: 03/15/2013 7:06 AM KSTP.com By: Beth McDonough

They've done their part, now it's time to offer them some help.

That's the idea behind a unique new program for Minnesota Veterans. There are 390,000 Vets in Minnesota.  Most return home from combat and re-adjust to life, normally.  Most but not all. 

That's why Ramsey and Washington Counties are working with Vets who've lost their way, not against them.

"I can't wait to get into a gun fight," said Dan Hanson, A Marine Corp. Veteran. It was a battlefield desire in Iraq that turned into a death wish back home in Minnesota.

"I started drinking every night, did hard drugs," said Hanson.  The enemy this time, was invisible.  Dan Hanson had demons, "time in the military does change a person, especially combat experience."

In Iraq, his crew: the 2nd Battalian, 4th Marine Regiment lost more men, 34, than any other unit in the war. The deaths continue even at home.  His brother and best friend, both marines, committed suicide.  After 5 DUI's and a number of run-ins with the law, Hanson tried to take his own life too.  At the time of his troubles, there wasn't a Veterans Justice Program in place.  In court, there also wasn't much mercy, "they thought my stories of PTSD were a crutch, just an excuse I'm using."

Enter Washington County Prosecutor Pete Orput, "we build them awfully tough."  He should know.  Orput is a Vet.  He understands post traumatic stress disorder is real and the result of Vets who suffer unique affects related to their service.  "It's the ones that struggle, end up using chemicals, alcohol, that leads to problems with law enforcement," said Orput.

He and Ramsey County Prosecutor John Choi see something better for Hanson and others.  They believe Veterans need more than jail or rehab, they deserve a chance at redemption, "our mission is to do the right thing for the right person in criminal court and sometimes you have to use a different hammer," according to Orput.  Choi went on to say "this is not a get out of jail free card, a big part of this is to take responsibility for your crimes, but then think about how we can help that person so they don't end up coming back into the criminal justice system again."

They're putting in place a program to identify Vets when arrested, consider mental health therapy as an alternative to jail, treat substance abuse, get them housing and re-integration help.  10 Vets are taking part in Washington County, 25 will be eligible in Ramsey.  Hennepin and Anoka Counties offer programs too.

"I've been sober for several years now," Hanson says proudly.  In part, because of the treatment offered to Vets at Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge.  Hanson came back to share his struggle and his success.  He's leading a life free of crime, earned two college degree's.  This is an apt audience, in the crowd are three Vets, one of whom served with Hanson.  He's mentoring him now, "I could look at my past as a way to help people instead of it being my biggest weakness, it could be my greatest too."

Prosecutors say the Veterans Justice Initiatives don't cost taxpayers a dime because Veterans Affairs picks up the cost of treatment and other programs.  Not every Veteran who applies, gets in or graduates from the program.

For resources available to veterans in the justice system, click here.