Outside the Minnesota State Capitol, there stands “A Monument to the Living.” This 12-foot-high statue, made by Vietnam Veteran Roger Brodin, resembles a green man, decked out in combat gear. He is shrugging, with his hands open. Underneath the statue is a plaque that reads “Why do you forget us?” The statue was placed there by veterans in 1982 to remind politicians that they must always take care of military members, even after they return from combat. But even with this constant reminder, our elected officials are still failing our veterans.
Currently in the House there is HF 478, and in the Senate there is SF 116, both titled the Military Veteran Offenders Restorative Justice Act. This bill proposes that veterans who have committed crimes at a level 7, or D7, severity or lower as a result of mental illness, sexual trauma, brain injury, or chemical dependency that was sustained due to military service should receive court-ordered treatment instead of jail time. This would be done so through veteran’s courts, which currently only exist in a few Minnesota counties.
This act has previously sustained bipartisan support. It had countless state officials work to perfect it. It currently has the support of nine different veteran support organizations. It passed the state Senate in the October 2020 special session. And yet, it was killed before it could be passed by the House. Rep. Marion O’Neill of Maple Lake requested 15 amendments to the bill at the very last minute. Her priority was removing violent offenders from being eligible to participate in Veteran’s Courts. But here is where that gets complicated.
When someone acts violently because of trauma, illness, injury, or addiction, that typically means there is a high need for intervention. While O’Neill says her concerns stem from the desire to protect victims of violent acts, this disregards how likely it is that the victim and perpetrator have a relationship. The perpetrator could be the victim’s spouse, parent, sibling, child, or friend. Chances are the victim will want to see the veteran get treatment for the pain they have sustained from their time in combat. I know I would.
This line of thinking also fails to acknowledge that the perpetrator is a victim themselves. People with PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, chemical dependency, and sexual trauma are not inherently bad people who desire to commit harm to others. They are people, like you and me, who have been hurt while serving their country.
As someone with people in my life who have experienced trauma, mental illness, and addiction, I have seen the benefits of treatment instead of jail time. When I was younger, someone in my life committed a notable amount of vandalism at a business during a delusional episode. When the police explained what had happened, I was terrified. I did not know what was going to happen next. However, the manager of the business said it was clear the individual had a lapse of judgment and the business did not want to press any charges. The manager knew he meant no harm to anyone. Instead of receiving jail time, the individual paid for part of the damages and entered treatment for his mental health. Now, almost a decade later, he is living independently, works a fulfilling job, and is able to be an active member of his community as well as a law-abiding citizen. I often look back and fear what would have happened if he would have received jail time instead. This response of compassion saved his life.
So, why are we not offering that full compassion to our veterans? Why do we so strongly believe that people who have sustained life altering diagnoses from serving our country deserve to be blacklisted for life with a criminal record and exacerbated illness from lack of treatment? Why do we forget them? If we truly want to support our veterans, we must support the Military Veteran Offenders Restorative Justice Act. It’s the least we can do.
Molly Burns-Hansen is a senior at Metropolitan State University, majoring in social science with a focus on disability advocacy. They are a life-long resident of Minneapolis.
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