WHERE’S EDDIE? I should have spent Veterans Day wondering what became of former servicemember Edward Van Tassel, arrested four years ago in Santa Barbara after brandishing a handgun on a freeway overpass, bringing the river of Monday-morning commuters to a halt for four hours. Instead, I found myself seriously wowed by the flotilla of WWII-vintage military planes flying donuts in formation over Santa Barbara. And I won’t lie; I got distracted by the torrid torrent of salacious details concerning the downfall of CIA Director David Petraeus, whose marital infidelities came to light after his biographer/mistress sent anonymous emails mad-dogging Jill Kelley, the 37-year-old high-society hostess she suspected wanted to spit-shine the general’s four stars.
I mention Van Tassel because he represents the collateral cost of our government’s decision to invade Iraq in response to 9/11. Like about half-a-million of the 2.6 million troops who’ve served in Iraq or Afghanistan, Van Tassel contracted a bad case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) while engaged in George W. Bush’s War on Terror. Just one day before the 2008 election, Van Tassel donned military fatigues and a black ski mask and occupied the La Cumbre overpass. He was armed with an American flag and an unloaded handgun. Court records indicate he wanted people to vote for Barack Obama. He wanted people to know what happened to returning veterans. Had city cops shot Van Tassel, they would have been acting in conformance with established procedure. But they didn’t. Had Superior Court Judge George Eskin sentenced Van Tassel to a long stretch in state prison, Eskin would have been entitled. But to the dismay of apoplectic prosecuting attorney Darryl Perlin, Eskin did otherwise. Concluding Van Tassel’s crime stemmed from his service-induced psychological condition, Eskin sentenced the 28-year-old vet to what the judge thought was a lock-down treatment facility in Los Angeles. It turned out it wasn’t. Twice, Van Tassel got out, planting himself in front of actor Tom Cruise’s home. Van Tassel claimed he wanted to enlist Cruise — who portrayed activist Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July — to his cause.
Although Perlin would eventually get Judge Eskin bumped from the case, Eskin’s approach held sway, and Van Tassel would get five years probation — and treatment — rather than three years behind bars. For Eskin, it was a light-bulb moment, inciting him to take the lead in starting a Veterans Court on the South Coast. (Judge Rogelio Flores incorporated one into his drug court in Santa Maria.) While still very much a work in progress, the new court takes advantage of a state law passed in 2008 allowing prosecutors to consider whether a criminal defendant has service-related PTSD and whether court-mandated treatment can be used as a substitute sentence. Eskin is getting some big-time help from Joe Butler, who pioneered a similar program in Chicago; Butler, it turns out, just happens to be cooling his heels at the Fielding Institute in Santa Barbara. Adding to the stew, Eskin and the Fielding folks are bringing to town another major player in the Veterans Court movement — Minnesota criminal defense attorney Brock Hunter — for a massive brain dump. Hunter can and will tell you how after every major military conflict, the United States experienced a major crime wave. Pennsylvania prisons were overflowing with combat vets right after the Civil War, he told me. Likewise, the U.S. was engulfed by a major crime wave in the aftermath of WWI. WWII — the last really “good” war — gave rise not just to motorcycle gangs like the Hells Angels, but to massive institutional insane asylums — capable of housing thousands, not just hundreds, of inmates — in its aftermath. Hunter reported there was a statistical spike in the number of “ice-pick” lobotomies performed after World War II, a grisly but simple procedure reserved, he said, for “war veterans and hysterical women.” Little wonder. No less than half-a-million combat vets were drummed out of the service during WWII because they were not psychologically fit. The link between combat vets, psychological scar tissue, and criminal behavior is hardly new. One Veterans Administration study from the 1980s showed 12 percent of Vietnam vets seeking treatment for PTSD had been convicted of at least one felony; one-third had been arrested twice. A more recent study suggests one-third of all homeless people are veterans. And a 2009 study of combat vets retuning to Ft. Carson suggests that 40 percent had engaged in behavior that would warrant a felony assault charge. Suicide rates, of course, are astronomical, with 18 veterans a day — from all wars combined — killing themselves. For Iraq/Afghanistan, Hunter said, it’s one a day. There’s reason to believe, he added, the psychotropic drugs being prescribed to many of the troops is fueling this. Suicidal ideation, it seems, is almost as common a side effect as dry mouth, weight gain, and loss of libido.
Criminal behavior among combat vets is tied most closely to the number of deployments and intensity of the combat experienced. Because we have an all-volunteer army, the vets returning now have experienced far more tours of duty than those returning from previous wars. That’s the bad news. The good news is that Veterans Courts actually seem to work. Just like drug courts and mental-health courts, Veterans Courts provide prosecutors the hammer needed to induce otherwise treatment-resistant vets facing criminal charges to get therapeutic help and stick to it. What makes Veterans Courts unique is that there are real resources available to the veterans through the VA system. The same is decidedly not the case for non-veterans seeking help through the other diversionary courts.
I’d like to know how things worked out for Edward Van Tassel. As he acknowledged in court, his stunt on the overpass was pretty crazy. A lot of people were late for work. His message got lost in the din. And he could have gotten killed. But at least some good has come from it. That counts for something. Actually, that counts for a lot.