This Veterans Day, children will stay home from school, parents from work and thousands will rush to Veterans Day sales. But for more than 1,000 veterans confined to Illinois’ prisons, Veterans Day is a bleak reminder that the country they volunteered to serve has failed them.
It’s easy to understand the factors that put veterans at risk for involvement in the legal system. Veterans are exposed to unimaginable trauma. They endure immense harm, both to their bodies and their minds. While many of us rest easy at night, they struggle with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress.
Historically, many veterans have been unable to find the help they need to manage their experiences. The combination of trauma and self-medication leaves veterans at higher risk of homelessness.: an unfathomable 11% of the homeless population is made up of veterans. It leaves them at a higher risk for suicide: veterans commit suicide 1.5 more often than non-veterans. These same factors put veterans at risk for involvement in the criminal justice system. More than half of the veterans involved in the criminal justice system have a documented history of substance abuse or mental health problems like PTSD, depression, or high anxiety.
Despite the clear correlation between military service and lasting trauma, veterans are more likely to receive longer sentences than non-veterans and a higher proportion of veterans are serving life sentences than non-veterans. That’s certainly true in Illinois, where 11% of incarcerated veterans are serving life sentences, a rate nearly three times higher than the general population . This is true despite the fact that, nationwide, veterans are less likely to have prior convictions.
The vast majority of veterans in prison have been honorably discharged, meaning that they are eligible for a range of benefits including health care, housing and mental health services. But many of the incarcerated veterans in Illinois will never be able to access that care. Hundreds have been sentenced to die behind bars.
What’s harder to understand is how we have failed our veterans so spectacularly. However, groups like Rush University’s Road Home Program now offer comprehensive evidence-based treatment to returning veterans from across the country, and mean that fewer veterans will go to prison in the future. The movement towards treating veterans who struggle with mental illness and addiction has already kept tens of thousands of veterans out of prison and will help generations of veterans to come.
But these developments do nothing to help nearly 1,000 veterans currently incarcerated. They will gain no benefit from our insight, no help from our new attention to medical need or evidence based practice, no path home to their families.
This Veteran’s Day, let us all remember those who not only put their lives on the line during their duty, but who continue to suffer for their service.