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Officer: military could learn from civilian courts

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Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Miller knew that deserting his post was a serious crime. But, by then, he had a lot more on his mind and heart than his job.

Back in 2003-04, while Miller was deployed as a cavalry scout in Afghanistan, his father died, his mother was diagnosed with cancer, and he was facing divorce. During his second tour, this time in Iraq, his best friend was killed by a roadside bomb.

A few months before his November 2007 serve-out date, while stationed at Fort Drum, Miller learned that he had been “Stop-Loss’d” — meaning he would remain with his unit for a third deployment. He walked away twice, for a total of 19 months.

At his court-martial two years ago, Miller testified that he knew he was likely suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, but purposely avoided treatment “in fear that I would be labeled a ‘nut’ and no longer be respected by my peers or subordinates.”

When it came time for sentencing, the prosecutor, Capt. Christopher Goren, argued that Miller should be made an example.

“If we allow Staff Sgt. Miller to get off easy, what kind of message will that send?” he asked the judge. “It would tell all those soldiers, lower soldiers, it is OK to go AWOL, which it is not.”

Goren asked that Miller be sentenced to seven months’ confinement, reduction in rank to the lowest enlisted grade and a bad-conduct discharge — which would have cut him off from the medical and mental-health benefits usually available to veterans.

But Col. Michael Hargis, the presiding officer, recommended that all but the demotion be suspended, on the condition that Miller undergo treatment and counseling.

Maj. Gen. James L. Terry, then commander of the 10th Mountain Division, went along with the recommendation. Miller successfully completed his treatment and was granted an honorable discharge.

In the world of military justice, Miller’s case is far from the rule. But some voices within that system are calling for change, saying military courts can learn from the recent experience of their civilian counterparts.

Civilian courts across the country have acknowledged the fact that, after a decade of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, some veterans’ crimes can be traced back to battle-zone trauma — and that they shouldn’t go to jail or prison for them. The same consideration should be given by the military legal system when damaged warriors come before it, say some military law authorities, including Maj. Evan Seamone.

Seamone, an Iraq War veteran now serving as chief of military justice at Fort Benning, Ga., makes the case in an article titled “Reclaiming the Rehabilitative Ethic in Military Justice,” published recently in Military Law Review.

Too many service members, he argues, are cast out for crimes or misconduct that could be attributable to post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or some other service-connected ailment. Such “punitive discharges” yank away the veteran’s safety net, passing the burden and risks on to the civilian system, he says.

“In its philosophy and practice, the military justice system is masking a major consequence of its sentencing procedures, which civilian courts have learned over the last two decades: Incarceration without adequate mental treatment leads to repeat offenses at a rate so alarming and harmful to society that it has created a ‘national public health crisis’ of ‘epidemic’ proportion,” Seamone writes.

“In contrast to problem-solving courts, which target the illness underlying criminal conduct, courts-martial function as problem-generating courts when they result in punitive discharges that preclude mentally ill offenders from obtaining” treatment through the Department of Veterans Affairs, writes Seamone. “Such practices create a class of individuals whose untreated conditions endanger public safety and the veteran as they grow worse over time.”

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