Facing Post Traumatic Stress in the Courtroom

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US soldiers keep watch at the entrance of a military base following the shooting of Afghan civilians allegedly committed by a rogue US soldier in Kandahar province on March 11, 2012.
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Although President Obama has officially ended the War on Iraq and is in the process of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, for many veterans, the war is far from over. 

It is estimated that 350,000 veterans of these two wars will return home with PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This disorder will not only make it difficult for them to readjust to civilian life, but oftentimes leads to destructive and violent criminal behavior. 

Since the Vietnam War, courts have viewed PTSD as a legitimate criminal defense. But as these overseas wars draw to a close and more veterans return home, the consequences of the disorder will become more and more prevalent throughout the United States. U.S. Courts could face an unprecedented influx of these cases. 

Former Connecticut Supreme Court Judge Barry Schaller wrote about this in his book "Veterans On Trial: The Coming Court Battles Over PTSD." "In Iraq and Afghanistan, you have prolonged wars with multiple deployments, with everybody being exposed to combat, essentially," Schaller says. "It brings its own set of factors that produce mental stress at the level when it becomes a disorder." 

PTSD is already used to make claims for medical and psychiatric services. Schaller calls the disorder a "mitigating factor" in cases where veterans are charged with crimes. He believes that Veterans' Affairs and other services needs to be more attentive to the needs of servicemen who return with PTSD. 

A study by Army mental-health experts found that prescreening recruits for signs of susceptibility to PTSD and the harmful behaviors that it may trigger would benefit the U.S. military considerably. However, Schaller doubts the viability of such a program. "Screening has never been 100 percent effective," Schaller says. "Frankly, when a war goes on, the needs begin to outrun the screening that is taking place." Mental health standards are reduced as the need for troops increases.  

There is a change towards the positive in regards to the stigma around PTSD. "The military culture has adjusted to the problem, [and] is more accepting," Schaller says. What the military should institute, the judge believes, is a training program for soldiers' re-entry into society, comparable in duration to basic military training. 

"We should really look to our veterans with all their training and education, their experience to be leaders and model citizens. They are, after all, law abiding people who go through an experience that changes them in some ways, and causes them problems. I don't think it's enough that they just recover. I think that that's setting the bar too low in a sense."