TULSA, Oklahoma — The plains of Oklahoma are a far cry from the mountains of Afghanistan and the deserts of Iraq, but that's where former Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant John "Gunny" Bennett realized the familiarity of home couldn't erase the scars of war. It's also where he's developed an alternative court for combat veterans who get in trouble with the law after they've returned.
In his new life working for the Sequoyah County Sheriff's Department, Bennett was starting to see more and more young veterans, the type of guys he used to order around, getting in trouble for alcohol- and drug-related crimes.
"I would see their tattoos," he said. "Veterans are proud of their service, and a lot of them get these tattoos, so I would go up to them and ask about their service. I noticed a lot of them are doing what I call self-medicating. They come back from a combat zone, and they are not sure how to handle those feelings or what they are going through, or [how to] stop those dreams they are having. So they start using drugs or drinking alcohol real heavily. Nine times out of 10, that leads to some sort of criminal activity."
After years of taking care of his men on the battlefield, Bennett wasn't ready to give up on them once they hit the criminal justice system. So, he started researching alternatives to locking up veterans who may have combat-related psychological or mental problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI) or depression.
"I think that the least that we owe these veterans is to give them another chance," Bennett said. "They volunteered to do this. And we train them and train them to go do the things they did. Then they come back, and we don't really help them when they get back."
When Bennett read about a judge in Buffalo, New York, creating a court docket for veterans who wound up in trouble after facing combat, he realized how he could take action. He got to work trying to get a similar court off the ground in Oklahoma.
That's where former Marine Corporal Matt Stiner came in. Stiner had recently starting working as the veterans' liaison for Tulsa Mayor Kathy Taylor.
"Gunny Bennett approached me about two-and-a-half months ago," Stiner recalled. "In the back of my mind, I wanted to know, 'What do you do for that veteran when he is most vulnerable, when they do need help and they hit the criminal-justice system?' And when I saw what Buffalo did, sirens went off."
The two got to work making calls to everyone from local judges and the district attorney to their senators and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. In less than three months, they had set up an alternative court for vets in the Tulsa County drug court system. The first cases will be heard in mid-November. If that seems like a really rapid turnaround for the justice system, you've obviously never met these two.
"Any time you have two Marines working on something, it will happen quickly," Stiner said. "The thing about it is, in this community, the state of Oklahoma, especially Tulsa, people are very patriotic. People want to help, and a lot of the time, you just have to tell them how to help or give them direction."
And with just a little direction, the two former Marines got the district attorney, a drug court judge, the county jail and the local VA in Muskogee to sign onto the project.
Here is how it will work: Combat vets who get arrested for drug- or alcohol-related crimes or other misdemeanors will get the opportunity to go to veterans' court. There, the judge can choose to sentence them to treatment for both their potential substance-abuse problems and their underlying cause — PTSD, TBI or other combat-related stresses. Each vet who goes through the system will be assigned a mentor, also a veteran, to serve as a sort of sponsor/ parole officer, helping them through their issues and reporting progress and pitfalls back to the judge.
"I think that that peer-to-peer contact is paramount," Stiner said. "I mean, someone like myself, a former Marine who did a tour in Iraq, I'm much more likely to talk to someone who served in Iraq as well."
Treatment will come either through the local VA hospital, which is equipped to deal with the needs of veterans facing substance-abuse problems, or local treatment facilities that already have a relationship with the court system.
The opening of this veterans' court is just the first step in a long process. Stiner and Bennett want to open up similar courts around the country in order to help as many former servicemen and -women as possible.
"It's near impossible for them to transition from that battlefield on their own," Bennett said. "They've gotta have help and this veterans' court is just one way we can do that."
Don't miss "A Night for Vets: An MTV Concert for the BRAVE," presented by MTV's Choose or Lose campaign and CNN to support veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The show features performances by 50 Cent, Ludacris, Kanye West, Hinder, Saving Abel and more, and airs Friday at 8 p.m. ET on MTV.