Veterans Day will be celebrated throughout the country on Friday, November 11th. For some, it will just be another day at the end of the work week. For others, it will be a paid holiday from their jobs. But we hope for many that it will provide an opportunity to, in some way, honor all American veterans, living or dead, in gratitude for their service and sacrifice on behalf of all of us.
There is one group of veterans particularly deserving of our collective attention and action. For as long as veterans have returned from war, some have brought their war home with them, bearing invisible wounds in the form of post-traumatic stress and other traumas. Untreated, these echoes of war – manifesting in substance and alcohol abuse and addiction, often leading to self-destructive and harmful behavior – reverberate through society, destroying not only the lives of these heroes, but victimizing their families and the communities they fought to protect.
As a result, large numbers of veterans in past generations have fallen into and been left behind in the criminal justice system upon their return home. Do you know that roughly one-third of U.S. military veterans report that they have been arrested and jailed at least once in their lives? (https://counciloncj.org/vjc-preliminary-assessment/)
For far too long our nation failed to honor our millions of veterans who served in Vietnam. We must not allow that grave error to occur again. For the last 18 years, a new generation of veterans has been returning from Afghanistan and Iraq and bringing their war home with them, creating the risk of an unprecedented public health and public safety crisis if left unaddressed.
Unlike prior generations, this group of 3 million veterans, which include 300,000 women, has fought the two longest wars in our nation’s history – mostly simultaneously. Without the draft that we relied on in past wars, the burden of serving and fighting has fallen on fewer shoulders of an all-volunteer force, with many vets of the current generation serving multiple combat tours – translating into much higher rates of post-traumatic stress and other traumatic injuries than prior generations. Our nation trained these ordinary citizens to serve our country by fighting and even killing others in distant lands and they bear deep visible and invisible wounds as a result. The suicide rate for veterans remains a national calamity. Every hurting veteran needs and deserves our collective help in the form of therapeutic treatment of their ills. Veterans Day gives us the chance to recognize their needs and our obligation to act on their behalf.
Minnesota already is leading the way. (www.nbcnews.com/us-news/many-us-veterans-land-bars-unique-new-law-may-change-rcna48331 ) On June 30, 2021, the Minnesota Legislature passed the Veterans Restorative Justice Act (VRJA).
It represents landmark legislation for healing and restoring veterans who become involved in the criminal justice system. It substitutes court-supervised treatment and rehabilitation for purely punitive measures to offer the veteran a path to redemption – and restoration as an asset to the communities they served.
The Veterans Defense Project (VDP), a Minnesota-based non-profit veterans advocacy group, was instrumental in the drafting and passage of the VRJA. (www.veteransdefenseproject.org) The VDP now is helping fully implement the VRJA throughout Minnesota and expand all or part of its groundbreaking aspects to other states.
On Veterans Day, the University of St. Thomas School of Law’s Initiative on Restorative Justice and Healing (www.stthomas.edu/law/centers/irjh) and the VDP will co-sponsor a special event “Honoring Veterans with Restorative Justice” at the school’s downtown Minneapolis location from 4:00 – 6:00pm. The event also will be livestreamed throughout the country. The program’s purpose is to highlight why so many veterans need restoration and healing from their service-related traumas. Ramsey County Attorney John Choi and VDP President Brock Hunter, who both helped draft the VRJA, will describe the role that veterans’ treatment courts and Minnesota’s new law can play in meeting that need. The audience will hear from Rep. Sandra Feist and Sen. Zach Duckworth how the VRJA became law in a divided legislature through dedicated bipartisan efforts, something our country clearly needs more of right now. Finally, Berlynn Fleury and Tony Miller, two Marine and Army veterans who have graduated from local veterans’ treatment courts, will tell their inspiring stories of overcoming substantial challenges to lead meaningful, productive lives. The event is free but registration is necessary here. (www.eventbrite.com/e/422845260557 )
We hope that many fellow citizens will take the time to attend or watch this worthwhile event. If you do, you also will be able to hear about the transformative powers of restorative justice from others, such as Monsignor Chad Gion’s dual role as a Chaplain for the North Dakota Army National Guard and the Pastor of North Dakota’s Catholic Indian Mission.
If you attend in person, and attend the reception following the event, you will be able to meet and thank Vietnam and other veterans who have never received adequate recognition for their service. You will be able to speak with Lawton Nuss, a Marine veteran, VDP board member, and a former Chief Justice of the Kansas Supreme Court, who gave up his top-ranking judicial position in mid-term in order to devote all his time to helping justice-involved vets. Finally, you can meet and express gratitude to Dominic Skawiniak, a 2020 St. John’s University graduate, Army National Guard officer, and first year UST Law student, who during August 2021 led his platoon in guarding part of the Kabul airport in Afghanistan, not far from where a suicide bomber killed 13 of his fellow American servicemembers and 79 Afghan civilians.
As a nation, we will never be able to fully repay the debt that we owe our veterans but as you contemplate how to spend your time on Veterans Day, we leave you with the words of President Abraham Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address, adopted in part as the U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs motto:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all … let us strive to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle… .”
Hank Shea is an Army veteran, a senior distinguished fellow at the University of St. Thomas School of Law and a fellow at its Initiative on Restorative Justice and Healing, and the Vice Chair of the Veterans Defense Project’s board of directors.