WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) – The US has been at war for 20 years now. While most of us go about our daily lives each day, it’s easy to forget the sacrifice of our service members and the toll it takes on people who have have served our country.
VA stats show 20 veterans take their own life every day. Countless others struggle with substance abuse and their mental health, and ultimately land in the criminal justice system.
“A lot of times people going to the military they don’t have any pre-existing issues — you’re 18 when you go in and its kind of a clean slate,” said attorney Brandon Pettijohn. “And these veterans that are coming out and becoming involved with the justice system probably wouldn’t have been involved with the justice system if it weren’t for their military service.”
New Hanover County leaders are looking into a new effort aimed to support veterans that get caught up in the criminal justice system.
Pettijohn is an attorney with Coastal Legal Counsel and has been working with judges and the DOJ to bring a veterans treatment court to New Hanover County.
The court would be an alternative to prison time for high risk veterans dealing with substance abuse or mental health problems.
“This is a way to keep them connected to benefits that they’re entitled to.” said District Court Judge J Corpening. “To keep them connected to treatment that they need, to navigate through their criminal justice issue — It’s exciting that we’re gonna be able to offer that, I hope,”
Local stats highlight how critical the need is; approximately 17 veterans are arrested and booked in New Hanover County every month.
“From a pure cost savings standpoint it makes more sense to rehabilitate somebody now then to continue to see them come to the system and the system spends that money. There’s cost savings passed on to the taxpayer,” added Pettijohn.
Aside from the data, advocates believe there’s a moral reason to create the court.
Pettijohn is a Marine Corps vet himself and though he had the support of his wife and family members when he was adjusting to life after coming home from Afghanistan, he’s grieved the loss of friends who didn’t have that support system and found themselves battling addiction from behind bars.
“A good friend of mine that I went to Afghanistan with, he got caught up in the justice system, was using drugs, spent some time in prison and unfortunately took his own life,” said Pettijohn. “It took a toll on me because he was one of my closest friends. We went overseas together and I always thought in the back of my mind that if he had a program like this, if someone would have stepped in and said ‘Hey, we can help you get through this,’ that I could’ve made a difference in his life and he could still be here.”
It’s why he’s so dedicated to starting the court, to help fellow service members understand its not the end of the road when you get out, that its just the beginning.
The grant has been sent off to the DOJ and leaders are waiting to hear back about whether or not they will be awarded the funding.
They hope to see the court come to fruition in the next two years.
Copyright 2021 WECT. All rights reserved.