I am writing this blog post on Memorial Day. As I write, people all over
Texas are pausing to reflect on the sacrifices that members of the Armed
Forces of the United States have made, including “the last full
measure of devotion,” so that we may live free. To those who have
sacrificed their lives in the service of our great country, we owe a debt
we can never repay. As President Abraham Lincoln exhorted our nation in
his immortal Gettysburg Address, we must always strive to give meaning
to the sacrifices of the brave men and women who serve our country in combat.
While Memorial Day is generally devoted to those brave service men and
women who have given their lives in defense of our way of life, there
is a huge component of service men and women to whom we owe an enormous
debt that we just may be able, in some small way, to repay. In the past
several decades, tens of thousands of veterans of foreign wars and conflicts
have returned to Texas alive, but nevertheless bearing the lasting and
profound scars of combat. As they return to their families, their jobs,
and their communities, they struggle with the ordeals and tribulations
of having suffered through horrors that you and I, who have not served
in combat, cannot properly comprehend. But, we owe it to these warriors to try.
While I am a veteran of the United State Marine Corps, I never served in
combat. However, I have known many who have, including my father, First
Sergeant Peter J. Phelps (USMC, Ret.), who served two tours of duty in
Vietnam. I have seen, but still cannot fully understand, the struggles
they have endured as they have tried to put their lives back together
after extended separation from their families and lives. Some handle it
better than others. In the wake of the wars in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf,
Afghanistan, and Iraq, tens of thousands of veterans of combat have returned
to Texas and are battling the after-effects of their experiences in combat.
In Brazos County, we enjoy a fairly large community of veterans, some
of whom suffer daily trying to re-assimilate into our community.
In my practice as a criminal defense attorney, I have represented a number
of combat veterans charged with criminal offenses, everything from possession
of marijuana and DWI to aggravated assault and domestic violence. Often,
the commission of these offenses is related to a combat veteran’s
struggle to cope with the lingering and damaging effects of having experienced
the trauma of combat. In almost every case, alcohol or some controlled
substance is involved. There can be no argument that some combat veterans
return to our community damaged psychologically. For many veterans, it
is hard to admit this. Some do not recognize the signs until it is too
late. It can be a very lonely struggle. In every case, they need our understanding
and our help.
And while we pride ourselves in this community for being veteran-friendly,
we are missing valuable opportunities to help these veterans in their
A criminal prosecution or conviction can affect a veteran for the rest
of his or her life. It can create strains on marriages and hinder the
search for a meaningful job. It is often a humiliating experience. I expect
that it is difficult from the perspective of the combat veteran to accept
coming from serving his or her country to being treated as a criminal
when they return because they are having difficulty putting their lives
Here’s the bottom line: we take these service members from their
homes and families, send them into combat where they experience fear,
danger, psychological trauma, and violence, and then, if they are fortunate
to survive, bring them home to their communities. That the transition
back to civilian life can be difficult is undeniable. As a country, we
do what we can to help ease this transition with psychological screening,
counseling, and other support. But, we can do more.
In Brazos County, we have no meaningful or dedicated process to identify
and help these troubled veterans. Certainly, a good defense attorney will
bring the experiences of the veteran to the attention of the prosecutor
in plea negotiations or to the judge in sentencing, but often these issues
are assumed to be just a “defense strategy” or just another
excuse and are discounted. This attitude, and the lack of a meaningful
response to the struggles of the combat veterans in our community, is
unacceptable. I know that this community loves and honors its veterans,
but we can and should be doing more in the criminal justice system.
In 2009, the Texas Legislature passed legislation to allow counties to
create special veterans courts to address the needs of combat veterans
caught up in the system whose offense is related in some way to a psychological
disorder from combat such as anxiety disorder or post-traumatic stress
disorder. The legislation sets fairly high criteria for participation
in the program, establishes a protocol for providing services specifically
tailored to the combat veteran, and, most importantly, results in a dismissal
of criminal charges after successful completion of the program. You can
read the statute, located in the Texas Government Code,
At least ten counties in Texas have created Veterans Courts and, by all
accounts, they have been very successful. Those counties include Harris,
Travis, Bexar, Dallas, and Tarrant.
The Veterans Court would provide judicial supervision, with prosecutor
consent, over a special caseload of carefully screened applicants. Upon
completion, charges against the veteran would be dismissed and, presumably,
expunged from their records.
One of the often-cited obstacles to the creation of a Veterans Court is
funding. However, there are numerous funding sources, including the Governor’s
Criminal Justice Division, which provide grants for creating and operating
these courts. Even if there was no external funding available, however,
the expense of establishing a Veterans Court in one of our three district
courts would be an expense worth undertaking for the sake of our veterans.
And, I don’t think the expense would be significant, certainly not
in light of the sacrifices and struggles of our combat veterans. Brazos
County already funds a drug court for drug offenders. I think our embattled
veterans deserve no less.
And there is an alternative. Prosecutors have the discretion to create
within their offices pre-trial diversion programs that can accomplish
the same ends. It would take little effort to craft programs in the District
Attorney’s Office and the County Attorney’s Office, in conjunction
with our courts and probation department, to address the special needs
of our deserving veterans.
a call to action: it is time to honor Brazos County’s combat veterans by recognizing
that there are criminal cases involving struggling veterans that deserve
our special attention.
To County Judge Duane Peters and the members of the Brazos County Commissioners Court, I respectfully call upon you to vote to create and fund a Veterans Court
in Brazos County.
To Brazos County District Attorney Jarvis Parsons and Brazos County Attorney
Rod Anderson, I respectfully call upon you to work with Commissioners Court in creating
and funding a Veterans Court. In the alternative, I respectfully request
that you develop office policies to identify deserving veterans in the
criminal justice system and use your prosecutorial discretion to provide
the services they need and encourage them toward success and recovery
by dismissing their cases and agreeing to expunctions when they are successful.
I have enough experience in the Brazos County justice system, both as a
prosecutor and a defense attorney, to know that this is not too much to
ask to repay our combat veterans as they struggle to put their lives back
together. There is no downside to creating a Veterans Court and by doing
so, we honor the service and sacrifice of these deserving veterans.
And it still will not be enough to repay them.
I will be following up with Judge Peters, Jarvis Parsons, and Rod Anderson
to further encourage action on their parts. They are honorable elected
officials and I have every reason to believe that they will embrace a
Veterans Court in Brazos County. I encourage all Brazos County voters
to let these officials know of your support for this effort.