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Behind Bars, Vets With PTSD Face A New War Zone, With Little Support

David Carlson served two tours in Iraq while in the military.
Courtesy of David Carlson
David Carlson served two tours in Iraq while in the military.

Carlson, seen in here in a photo from 2009, calls jail the "least therapeutic atmosphere" to help overcome his PTSD.
Courtesy of David Carlson
Carlson, seen in here in a photo from 2009, calls jail the "least therapeutic atmosphere" to help overcome his PTSD.

At the county court in Waukesha, Wis., this September, Iraq veteran David Carlson sat before a judge hoping he hadn't run out of second chances.

The judge read out his record: drugs, drunk driving, stealing booze while on parole, battery while in prison. And then the judge listed an almost equal number of previous opportunities he had at treatment or early release.

Carlson faced as much as six more years on lockdown — or the judge could give him time served, and release him to a veterans' treatment program instead.

The judge's tone was not encouraging.

"This criminal justice system frankly has bent over backwards in an effort to maintain you in the community," said Judge Donald Hassin Jr. "And frankly sir, the response to all that has not been good."

Carlson has spent most of the past five years locked up. Before that he did two tours in Iraq. His family says the second tour, in particular, scarred him, sending back a man they hardly knew. They attribute his criminal behavior to war trauma — and the Veterans Affairs Department agrees: Carlson has debilitating post-traumatic stress disorder. Being locked up isn't helping, he said.

"For my PTSD issues, jail is the least therapeutic atmosphere you could ever imagine. You come in one way and you leave three times worse," Carlson says, by phone from jail.

Prison and war take some of the same survival skills, he says.

"Same as when I'd been on patrol in Iraq ... Iraqis know, they know if you're [an] aggressive unit, or if you're a weak unit, if you're a soft target, if you're a hard target. It's the same in prison," Carlson says.

So Carlson made it known that he was a hard target. He mapped out the blind spots in the prison surveillance system. He had tricks like putting a slick of baby oil down at the door of his cell to slip up an attacker. And he got into plenty of fights, which is why he came up with his own version of prison-basic-training.

"In cell fighting, the number one rule is take the initiative," he says. "My training always geared around very good cardio, because I knew no matter how good a fighter was, as long as I could out last him, I would win. I came up with all sorts of philosophies in my mind the same way I had in Iraq. We were always hyper vigilant."

Hyper vigilance isn't a bad thing if you're in Iraq, or in prison. It's not so good if you're trying to recover from PTSD.

"Staying in that mode of contemplating violence, I feel there's no way to work on PTSD," he says.

Most treatment for PTSD involves winding down from the combat mind-set, and learning not to treat the world around you like a war zone. But behind bars, mental health treatment is rare and VA health care is suspended.

The VA doesn't track the number of veterans incarcerated. The most recent government statistics are from 2004, but new numbers are expected to be released later this month. A recent study did show that Iraq and Afghanistan vets in prison — like Carlson — have high rates of PTSD.

Being At War Behind Bars

Carlson says the only time he could see a therapist was if he threatened suicide. A couple years in, Carlson said he started to lose it.

"I almost felt like I was delusional, but in my mind I was in combat with the jail, basically. I was at war, nonstop," he says.

Carlson treated his war with the jail like the counter-insurgency he'd fought in Iraq. He even recruited other inmates to his cause. That got him thrown into solitary, and eventually he began to get his life under control. He started exercising in the extreme, doing thousands of push-ups, and long CrossFit-style work outs.

He began reading the Bible every day, which he says gave him a more positive outlook.

Last year he retained a new lawyer. Tony Cotton worked much of the case pro bono.

"I think we owe every combat veteran who had those experiences not just our platitudes and thanks," says Cotton. "We owe them opportunities within the criminal justice system because a lot of veterans find themselves within the criminal justice system. We owe them a different level of treatment ... in my opinion."

Cotton managed to convince two judges in Wisconsin to agree, and clear away outstanding charges so Carlson would be able to leave prison and enroll in a veterans' treatment court. Just one sentencing hearing stood between Carlson getting the treatment he needed.

By happenstance, the week of David Carlson's sentencing hearing, retired Judge Donald Hassin Jr., was filling-in on the bench at Waukesha County court. Hassin graduated from West Point class of 1971, and he has a son and daughter who are both in the Army.

As a fellow veteran, that might make the judge more sympathetic. Or it could mean that he's a stereotypical, strict Army officer, with none of the awe that civilians sometimes feel toward combat vets.

Carlson's Sentencing

On the morning of the hearing, Carlson's family and friends – including his Iraq buddies — filled the hallway outside the courtroom.

His Iraq pals were a mixed bunch. One of them had the shakes, because he quit booze for the whole day to come out and show support. Others are doing fine.

David Rock was with Carlson during his second Iraq deployment. He says he wouldn't have come to court to support just anyone.

"When it came time to push, David was the guy to have out there. He's the definition of a leader in terms of what you want to see in combat," says Rock. "He had a mission, and it was to get everybody back."

When the doors opened, Carlson was already sitting at a table with his lawyer. He got one glimpse of his family and friends before the bailiff told him to face front toward the judge.

The case would decide if he should serve up to six years in state prison for operating under the influence — it's his fourth offense in five years, which makes it a felony — and felony bail jumping.

Cotton called on a few character witnesses: a Vietnam vet who has been counseling Carlson in prison, and his grandmother, who talked about how much Iraq had changed him. Cotton asked the judge to give Carlson time served for the two felonies and let him go home with his family.

The judge though, seemed to have already made up his mind.

"I'm looking at a fine young man sitting in front of me today, that I'm going to end up putting in prison for a little bit. The reason I'm going to do that Mr. Carlson is 'cause you're not ready. And I have an obligation above and beyond your rehabilitative needs, to protect the public," said Hassin.

He then pronounced: "The sentence today is two years on each count."

Carlson's family gasped and his Iraq buddies stared at the judge in silence.

Then Hassin explained: The sentences are to be served concurrently. That effectively means it's a total of two years. Plus, Carlson gets credit for all the time he's already served.

"That, by my estimation will give you a few brief months to better prepare you for return to the community. Because the next time you come to the community all that we wish from you is your success," Hassin told Carlson.

"I'm giving you the challenge sir of leaving the state prison system in a fairly short period of time," Hassin continued. "The good news is you're going to get out soon. The bad news is Mr. Carlson, that you're going to have to face those circumstances of being back on the street again. But, you know what? You can do it. You're very capable of it ... These guys behind you believe you're capable of it today as well or they wouldn't be here. "

Calling from jail the day after sentencing, Carlson says he was pleased — not just with the sentence.

"I mean at the end he called me a fine young man," says Carlson. "Honestly and it didn't matter what sentence he gave me. That meant a lot to me ... throughout all of this that's what I've been looking for. Just for people to see that I meant well, and that I went down the wrong road."

Carlson is trying to get on the right road — he says the PTSD is with him there in the cell, and every day he fights it. If he stays on that road, he'll be out of prison before the New Year.

This story is part of a project we're calling "Back at Base." NPR — along with seven public radio stations around the country — is chronicling the lives of America's troops where they live.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.