As we embark on the month meant to honor our service members and their families, we are again hit with the reality that we routinely fail our soldiers and veterans.
They fight our wars whether there’s public support for them or not, defend our precious liberties and make personal sacrifices that most of us can’t imagine. Yet when they return home, veterans often find it difficult to find jobs, support their families and deal with the trauma that often comes with military service. There is heightened awareness around these problems now, but mental illness and addiction are still common among veterans, and our country is falling short in healing those who protected all of us.
I can speak to this from personal experience.
My father, Lamar Pye, was a proud Marine who served two tours in Vietnam, including during the Tet Offensive. He was wounded there, hit with shrapnel that lodged in his chin, elbow and leg — wounds for which he was awarded two Purple Hearts. He also was exposed to Agent Orange, the effects of which would eventually take his life on Sept. 7, 1993. I was 12 years old at the time.
He suffered from PTSD and depression. When I was a teenager, a few years after his death, I found a transcript from one of his sessions at the local VA hospital in which he openly admitted to contemplating suicide; he said that I was the only reason he didn’t.
Although my dad couldn’t tell me about his time in Vietnam because I was too young to understand, I knew his experiences there largely defined him. He simply couldn’t handle the tremendous weight of his time in war. It haunted him. He didn’t reenlist because one of his friends was killed in action on his first day of redeployment. He later told my mother that helmets given to soldiers would still have flesh in them from previously wounded soldiers.
The PTSD and depression my father suffered were felt by my mother, my sister and me. Although he never got physically violent with us, he was mentally abusive. Unable to handle conflicts at home, he would become unreasonably angry and often not speak to us for days. This affects me even to this day.
I don’t blame my dad. He was a victim of his circumstances. It doesn’t make me love him or miss him any less. Nearly 30 years later, I can see how my time with him, as short as it was, still impacts me on an almost daily basis, especially through the work I have chosen to do with criminal justice reform.
One way veterans deal with their problems is by self-medicating through alcohol and drugs. This wasn’t an issue in our home, but given the pain that was so apparent in my father, I understand all too well why veterans disproportionately struggle with addiction. Alcohol and prescription or illicit drug abuse often lead to entanglements in our broken criminal justice system, and instead of healing these men and women, incarceration simply adds to their trauma. In the criminal justice reform movement, we advocate for alternatives to incarceration for sick people — those with addiction and mental health issues who are better served with treatment, counseling and rehabilitative services.
A recent report showed 8 percent of people incarcerated at the state level, and more than 5 percent incarcerated at the federal level, are military veterans, constituting a disturbing 107,400 current or former members of America’s armed forces behind bars. More than one in 10 veterans have been diagnosed with a substance use disorder, so it should come as no surprise that nearly 30 percent of the veterans in federal prison are there for drug convictions.
At the state level, veterans’ courts, more diversion and treatment options and expanded reentry services have led to better outcomes for many veterans. But we must do more, especially for communities of color that are sending a greater number of young people into military service.
In Congress, a bill called the EQUAL Act is stalled in the Senate after receiving a rare and overwhelming bipartisan 361-to-66 vote in the House of Representatives. This bill would eliminate the shocking 18-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, perhaps the worst vestige of injustice in America’s drug policy.
During Military Families Appreciation Month and on Veterans Day, my hope is that we can view criminal justice, and particularly drug policy reforms, through the lens of those who have served our country.
I’ll be pushing for the EQUAL Act to honor my father, Lamar Pye, and the tens of thousands of other military veterans who suffered severe trauma, many of whom are left alone to struggle with addiction and the consequences of America’s archaic, unfair, counterproductive drug policies.
These men and women fought for our freedoms. Now it’s time for us to fight for theirs.
Jason Pye is the director of rule of law initiatives at the Due Process Institute. He lobbies Congress on sentencing reform, second-chance policies and civil liberties issues. Before joining the Due Process Institute, he was the vice president of legislative affairs for FreedomWorks.