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VA Seeks To Aid Veterans Behind Bars

Program helps San Diego veteran turn life around

Evening Edition

Marine veteran Shaun Tullar talks about his future after jail from his room at Veterans Village San Diego, Nov. 16, 2015.

As part of the effort to end homelessness among veterans, the Veterans Administration has been going into the courts and the prison system, looking for vets who may have been left untreated, once they get out.

In August, Shaun Tullar was spending 90 days locked in the Vista Detention Facility in San Diego County. He joined the Marine Corp, hoping to turn around a cycle of drugs and alcohol that started when his mother died in 2003 — while he was in high school. For a while, the Marines Corp worked. He was sober through a seven-month tour in Helmond province in Afghanistan, but he began drinking after he came back to Camp Pendleton. He went into a substance abuse treatment program on Point Loma, just prior to leaving the Marines.

“I felt very optimistic about the future. I had a lot of good things in place, however my support network wasn’t out here,” he said.

Then, on Jan. 20, 2012, one week after he left the Marines, he got a call from his sister.

“I got a phone call from my sister, found out my brother had died in Afghanistan,” he said. “He was on a CH-53, as a crew chief, and everyone on the helicopter was killed. After that, I relapsed at that point. I was not strong in my recovery at that point made some poor decisions.”

He tried the VA, but didn’t follow up. Instead, Tullar had several brushes with the law before winding up homeless. In jail, he was serving a three-month sentence on drug charges. He was living on a unit designed for veterans. They are housed together and receive classroom instruction from counselors who are veterans themselves. The concept is still relatively new in prisons around the country. The Veterans Pod in San Diego is run by the county Sheriff’s Department.

It’s in jail where the VA got a second chance to treat Tullar.

In recent years, the VA has begun doing more to find veterans behind bars as part of the effort to end homelessness among vets.

“They found there is a gap between those who are in custody and those who are getting out,” Angela Simoneau, Veterans Justice Outreach specialist with the VA in San Diego. “Usually, when you’re released, it’s 'here’s a bus token figure out where you going to go.'”

A 2014 VA study showed vets in prison have higher rates of mental illness and substance abuse than other veterans in the VA system, even though they often don’t seek treatment. If the VA can link up with these vets while they are in jail, it’s highly likely that they can get them into treatment, after they’re released.

“Our goal is not to end incarceration among veterans,” Sean Clark, national coordinator for Veterans Justice Outreach at the VA. “What we’re trying to do is ensure that when veterans do have contact with the criminal justice system, that there are effectively off ramps, into needed treatment.”

Each VA Medical Center in the United States has at least one person dedicated to work with the local justice system. They are in a number of jails and prisons around the country.

Special Feature Back At Base

KPBS is chronicling the lives of America's troops where they live. It's part of a joint effort with NPR and six other public radio stations around the country.

When Tullar walked out of jail in September, Joy Villa Vicencio, a Veterans Justice Outreach specialist, was waiting for him.

“So, there are a lot of moving parts to getting someone out of custody and get them into my custody, into my care, basically, and then taken where they need to go,” she said.

Tullar is what people in the program call a direct deposit. To eliminate the possibility of him walking away, the VA takes people like him right to care. In Tullar’s case, a 28-day in-patient treatment program run by the VA.

He has since been transferred to Veterans Village in San Diego. He’s scheduled to live there for the next year. His mine-resistant military vehicle was struck by an explosive device in Afghanistan. On top of drug treatment, he’ll be treated for PTSD. Eventually, he’ll receive job training.

The Marine veteran had just turned 30, and he was making plans to get a degree in organic farming.

“I don’t think this is a low point at all,” Tullar said. “This is one of the first times in the last 15 years that I’ve actually been sober on my birthday.”

Despite his progress, he hadn’t told his sister in Florida, where he’s been these past several months.

“I don’t want to worry her at this point,” he said. “I don’t want to tell her, that it took going to jail to come back to the realization that I needed to get my life together, but, it’s the truth.”

Criminal justice is largely a responsibility of state and local government. Aside from the VA's own treatment programs, they rely heavily on programs created at the local level. There aren't year-long programs like the one at Veterans Village, in every part of the country. And the VA hasn’t done enough research to discover whether this type of outreach actually keeps veterans out of prison.

But Tullar thinks that it will turn his life around.

For veterans struggling with mental health issues and addiction, it’s clearly a step up from leaving jail to go back onto the streets.

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