Tomy Parker is a Ronan veteran who hit a bad skid of abusing painkillers, and did jail time after he returned from Afghanistan. He isn’t alone.
In the justice system, 81% of veterans have a substance use disorder prior to incarceration, according to the advocacy organization Justice for Vets.
And in Montana, arrests for drug offenses spiked from 2011 to 2015. According to a report from the state’s Department of Justice, arrests for methamphetamine possession increased nearly 500% in that period, and those for heroin increased over 1,000%.
In Lake County over just one year, felony charges for possession of dangerous drugs tripled, going from just over 200 in 2012 to 600 in 2013.
One in six Iraq and Afghanistan veterans also suffer with a substance abuse disorder, according to Justice for Vets, which advocates for reforms for veterans in the justice system; the organization counts 25% of veterans as identifying as mentally ill prior to incarceration.
Roughly 9% of veterans and military members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have been arrested since their return as well, according to a report cited by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Parker, a Marine who was struck by a blast that claimed his entire left leg and right leg just above the knee in 2010, as well as four fingers of one hand, is quick to point out that many veterans who return from war with injuries don’t slip into prescription drug abuse (see accompanying story in Territory).
“I was a practicing addict in this valley for almost a decade,” he said. “I’d hate to say my injuries caused my addiction. I might have become an addict without it.”
Last week, Parker parked his wheelchair in the office of Kenny Denny, his probation officer. Denny doesn't prescribe every new treatment model, but said probation programs are getting better at identifying specific needs for specific people, such as veterans, struggling with addiction.
And in Missoula and around the state, more solutions are emerging as officials turn their focus to jail diversion programs. In its January 2019 report to the state Legislature, the Montana Supreme Court Office of Court Administrator called veterans treatment courts "a new area of emphasis."
Last week, Cascade County District Judge Greg Pinski, whose veterans treatment court boasts a 90% graduation rate and 11% recidivism rate, said they are making a real difference in the lives of veterans. But more can be done.
"When you look at the veterans who are completing Veterans Treatment Court, they're more likely to be sober, more likely to have their mental health issues stabilized. They have a job and they have a place to live," he said.
In Denny’s office, a black bear head was mounted on the wall, and a window overlooked Polson Bay on the south end of Flathead Lake. From the way Denny and Parker shot the breeze, an outsider probably wouldn’t even know it was Parker’s monthly meeting with his probation officer had Denny not been wearing a badge.
Parker had a few upcoming trips he’d wanted to get approved. The first was to Washington, D.C. Denny started typing notes into this computer: What airline?
Delta, Parker said.
What’s the flight number? Parker had it ready. Denny prodded further.
“You’re so much more relaxed than my other PO's,” said Parker, wisecracking at every opportunity. Both men laughed because they were both acutely aware Parker had his rounds through the criminal justice system, with 18 months spent incarcerated since March 2017. But despite all the painstaking details Parker must fork over to gain access to the world, his relationship with Denny is different than that of his past probation officers. As veterans, it’s like they had a history even before entering each other’s orbits.
In cases such as Parker’s, Denny said he is able to establish a relationship with them because he can identify with some of their traumas, and recognizes their ensuing traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorders. A common denominator with civilians and veterans who find themselves in Denny's office is a past of physical abuse, he said.
"It's a process of recovery," Denny said. "It's their mindset through that process that saves them."
The start of the year also marked the first time Parker appeared in Veterans Treatment Court in Missoula. He avoided jail time by agreeing to take specific steps outlined by a group that included his court mentor and VA counselors along with court prosecutors and his defense lawyer.
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The report to the Montana Legislature included data from three veterans drug courts in Montana: Missoula, Yellowstone and Cascade counties, the only such programs in the state. (Bozeman Municipal Court kickstarted its own veterans treatment court in late 2018.) Administrators found more veterans, 72.5%, admitted to a diversion program had been able to access the veteran treatment courts in those area than in the previous biennium, 53.1%.
Pinski, who travels the country to attend trainings for the program and likewise travels the state to conduct trainings at the county level, thinks that's a great start, but said more can be done. He has tried to connect veterans in the criminal justice system in Helena, which is without such a program, to his veterans treatment court in Great Falls through video link or other methods.
Standing Master Brenda Desmond has headed Veterans Treatment Court in Missoula since it launched in 2012.
During that time, 67 veterans have passed through the co-occurring court designed specifically for those confirmed to be chemically dependent, and at a high risk to re-offend. The court also requires them to be facing a prison or probation sentence of at least a year.
Those 67 came from campaigns of Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, and the majority from the War on Terror. Although alcohol remains the most common choice for vets in the program to abuse, Desmond has seen meth and heroin users begin to enter her court in recent years. Their crimes include robbery, disorderly conduct, assault and felony possession.
“I’m never going to say that their crimes were caused by their military service, but I will say that the readjustment challenges were caused by their military service,” she said.
According to a report published by the VA, the combat operations that began in September 2001 also began an opioid epidemic among the troops that preceded the one that hit civilians a decade later. The report, published in 2017, said prescriptions from military physicians to treat chronic pain and migraines had quadrupled by the end of the first decade of the War on Terror.
At the beginning of the four-phase program, Desmond said the veteran’s job is “just to show up.” If a participant fails one of the twice-weekly drug tests, the court imposes a reprimand in place of jail time. That reprimand can come in the form of describing the triggering event in print, community service or a second chemical dependency assessment.
“They’re a lot more forthcoming than you’d think,” Desmond said. “I don’t expect them to not use drugs, considering everyone in the program has been diagnosed as chemically dependent, but I do expect them to get the help they need.”
In October, Parker said, he received permission to leave the program, although he’s appreciative of Veterans Treatment Court; he lives in Ronan and wants to remain there.
Although Parker’s story could feel like a product of his many circumstances, from being a high-intensity guy who joined the Marines to suffering through an unimaginable life event that involuntarily hooked him on dope, he doesn’t see it that way
Much of his success he credits to holding himself accountable. Today, he has a relatable and encouraging probation officer, a girlfriend who he says “wagers” time, energy and risk into his recovery, and a renewed sense of ambition, something that had no pulse a year ago. He has been clean for six months, and you’d probably have to be a recovering addict to understand the clear-mindfulness he enjoys.
Much of the key to staying sober, Parker said, is just filling the time once spent getting high somewhere with something positive. Parker, since his last hit in February, now trains for marathons. He finished the Missoula half-marathon in June.
Parker has a long way to go until he's out from under the criminal justice system, but it's not insurmountable. Parker's ambition and experience are pushing him toward a potential career in helping others with addiction. He's thinking about pursuing a psychology degree or becoming a licensed clinical social worker. He really likes how changing his diet has affected his attitude, too, so he thinks adding a nutrition degree would add value to helping others recover.
Parker's trip to Washington, D.C., is for a visit to a fellow Marine who tried and failed to intervene in Parker's addiction in 2016, another sign that Parker is reclaiming his life. Parker had a second travel request, this one to his girlfriend’s parents’ house. Back to the same questions: What’s the make, model and color of the vehicle he’ll travel in?
There was something else, too. Parker wanted to know when they could talk about reducing his meetings, fewer than the monthly meetings he’s been on since he’s been out.
“I think I’m a moderate risk?” Parker suggested.
Denny scrolled through Parker’s drug history, criminal history and past evaluations, and said Parker would be up for that evaluation in a few more months. But with Parker's performance over the last few months, Denny didn't seem concerned.
“We can deal with that.”