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Washington County veterans' court: Working to repair those returning 'broken'

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Washington County veterans' court: Working to repair those returning 'broken'
Cottage Grove Minnesota 7584 80th Street South 55016

With many current generation veterans doing multiple combat tours, a large number suffer from all sorts of trauma, turning to alcohol and drugs to numb the pain.

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After seeing so many get in trouble with the law, Washington County law enforcement became one of the agencies in the metro to implement a separate veterans court.

The treatment program, which has been running for one year, has graduated two out of the total 26 referred and 13 accepted, according the Washington County Attorney's Office.

"They come back broken," County Attorney Pete Orput said. "I feel like it's our moral obligation to at least try to fix it."

Brock Hunter, a veteran who served in Korea and is now working as an attorney in Minneapolis representing many veteran clients, said flashbacks of intense situations often cause a "very dangerous situation for all involved."

With the smell of burnt flesh and blood, sounds of explosives, gunshots and bombs and images of human remains still lingering, hundreds of thousands of veterans are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"A lot of these folks come back and see themselves as murderers," Hunter said. "And it takes a lot of work to convince them they deserve to get help."

Out of the 2.6 million who've served in Iraq and Afghanistan, about 500,000 return with PTSD and another 500,000 with traumatic brain injury (TBI), according to the Department of Veterans Affairs..

But less than half sought help, Hunter said.

As of August last year, one active duty member per day was killed by suicide, Hunter said, citing figures collected by the VA.

Comparing Iraq and Afghanistan to Vietnam, he said current generation veterans are serving multiple, 13-month tours, as opposed to one.

The "recycling of troops" method has led to more intense PTSD symptoms upon returning and trying to adjust to civilian life, Hunter said.

PTSD is one of the leading factors to domestic violence cases, law enforcement officials say, in addition to anger, frustrating unemployment and homelessness.

"They have a whole bunch of problems that aren't being addressed," Orput said.

The Washington County Veterans Court relies on referrals from the sheriff's office, city police, city attorneys, community corrections agents and veterans service officers to bring in potential candidates for the program.

Although it's not a guilty plea, every defendant must admit to committing the crime by not maintaining his innocence, the program requires.

Also an eligibility requirement is that the underlying cause of the crime ties back to the veteran's service in the war.

The cases are scheduled on the first Friday of every month with two judges in Washington County volunteering to review them.

The two graduates of the court so far were charged in cases that have been dismissed.

"Since it takes a year to run through the program, that number is not too bad," said Brent Wartner, first assistant county attorney.

'Change Step'

Former Army ranger Hector Matascastillo served 13 deployments before returning to civilian life in Lakeville, Minn., only to find himself sitting in the basement with a bottle of Jack Daniels and a handgun thinking, "it's my fault the world is the way it is."

One January day in 2004, his flashbacks led to a confrontation with eight police officers on the front lawn of his home to the point that he was ready to commit homicide, he said.

"I was willing to hurt anybody just to die," he said.

After going through therapy, finding a job and becoming a licensed therapist, Matascastillo is now a psychotherapist running his own practice helping people through their own trauma.

With the Domestic Abuse Project, Matascastillo recently launched a new program for veterans dubbed "Change Step."

The program incorporates the impact of military culture, deployment and resulting separation from family and the effects of combat to help veterans who have used abusive behaviors with their partners.

Matascastillo can relate to many of the veterans who have forgotten they were successful when they first went into the military and they always need a reminder to push them in the right direction.

"Stud, you better get right or you're going to get left," he said is his go-to advice. "You need a quick 'Change Step.'"

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Riham Feshir
Riham Feshir is a reporter and photographer for the Woodbury Bulletin. Her coverage includes Woodbury City Hall, Washington County Board of Commissioners and business news.  Follow Riham on Twitter @RihamFeshir for the latest updates.
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