Articles written by attorneys for attorneys and published in the “Veterans Law” issue of the printed journal, Communiqué (November 2016):
- “Representing Veterans on Their Disability Claims Before the VA” by Travis N. Barrick, Esq.
- “Military Retirement Primer” by Marshal S. Willick, Esq.
- “Impact of VA Disability on Social Security Disability Rating” by Mark Rouse, Esq.
- “VA Disability Benefits Taxation and the Federal Tax Implications of Retroactive Disability Determinations” by Suzanne M. Warren, Esq.
- “Project Salute to Serve Veterans” by Krissta Kirschenheiter, Esq.
- “The Nevada Attorney General’s Office of Military Legal Assistance: Helping our Military Heroes Feel @EASE” by Special Assistant Attorney General Nic Danna
- “Serving Those Who Served: Veterans Treatment Courts” by Judge Mark Stevens
© 2016 The following articles were originally published in COMMUNIQUÉ, the official publication of the Clark County Bar Association. (November 2016). All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this article, contact the publisher Clark County Bar Association, 717 S. 8th Street, Las Vegas, NV 89101. Phone: (702) 387-6011.
Representing Veterans on Their Disability Claims Before the VA
By Travis N. Barrick, Esq.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”) recently released statistics that showed that more than 95 percent of all veterans’ disability claims filed with the VA were incomplete or incorrect. As a result, there was (i) a high rate of denial of claims; (ii) extreme frustration on the part of the veteran; and (iii) an ever-increasing backlog of claims in the appeals process.
VA claims begin as a purely administrative process, whereby a claim is filed, the record is developed, and a rating decision is rendered on the record, all without hearings or testimony. Once the initial rating decision is rendered, the veteran can appeal by filing a Notice of Disagreement or simply ask for a reconsideration. At all points going forward, the veteran can request an in-person hearing. Successful veterans’ advocates take full advantage of this opportunity for a hearing to fill in any gaps in the record with additional evidence and testimony.
VA rating decisions are made by rating officers, who are not doctors, that rely on Compensation and Pension (“C&P”) Examinations as the basis of their decisions. More often than not, C&P exams are not performed by VA treating physicians, but by outside contract physicians, who are required to, but seldom appear to, review the entire veteran’s file before rendering their opinion.
The VA has basically two halves to its brain – the medical treatment side (the Veterans Health Administration or “VHA”) and the disability claims side (the Veterans Benefits Administration or “VBA”). These two sides do not appear to like each other, trust each other, or share information in a positive sense. The high rate of denial of claims can be partially attributed to the animosity between the VHA and the VBA, as their incentives are not aligned.
Attorneys who get involved in the appeals process face numerous challenges in getting the claim back on track. To the VA’s credit, their rating decisions generally make explicit the standard that needs to be met and the evidence required to meet that standard. But, because the rating decisions are written in “VA Speak,” it is not usually obvious to the veteran where they went wrong. Once an attorney becomes well-versed in VA Speak, it is not all that difficult to identify the issues and the evidence needed to obtain a more favorable rating decision.
The majority of claims fall into a couple of categories: (i) physical limitations resulting from injuries and (ii) psychological impairments resulting from traumatic events. Common physical limitation cases involve hearing loss, back problems, arm and leg impairments, residual conditions from wounds and injuries, chronic organ failures, etc. Common psychological impairments involve PTSD, major depressive disorders, or traumatic brain injury. For each of these types of claims, the value of an independent medical exam cannot be overstated, because the VA is required by the regulations to give the veteran the benefit of any doubt, especially when there are competing medical opinions on an issue.
Attorneys can be paid for their work on behalf of veterans, but it is tightly regulated by the VA and limited to only work performed at the appeal process and beyond. Thus, while attorneys may assist veterans with their original claim, they may not charge a fee and VA will not pay the attorney for that work. This unfortunate impediment contributes to the high number of incomplete and inaccurate original claims because experienced attorneys could better prepare original claims and reduce the number of appeals necessary.
One reason why more attorneys do not become involved in this practice area is the lag time on getting paid. VA claims have a long shelf-life and, even after the claim is won, the attorney payment mechanism is fairly byzantine and horribly backlogged.
To become an accredited attorney, authorized to practice before the VA, the attorney needs to apply for attorney accreditation and complete at least three hours of CLE credits in their first year of practice. There are several veterans advocate organizations that provide those CLE credits, most notably the National Organization of Veterans Advocates (“NOVA”). The NOVA website, www.vetadvocates.org, is highly functional, with a Wiki library of forms, exemplars, case law, and chat rooms.
I encourage all attorneys to consider adding this field to their areas of practice. The rewards of helping veterans get the benefits that they deserve cannot be overstated. The VA claims process is Kafka-esque and helping someone who has served our country get through the process is a wonderful feeling. Assisting veterans is another way to serve. The fact that attorneys can be paid for the work is a secondary benefit. When the number of veterans from the recent conflicts in the Gulf are added to the remaining Vietnam era veterans, it becomes readily apparent that there is a nearly overwhelming need for attorneys to get involved.
Pro bono cases are available through the National Veterans Legal Services Program, www.nvlsp.org, which is a good way to get an introduction to this practice area, as they have a fully developed support system and will give a volunteer attorney the resources necessary to assist a worthy veteran.
Travis N. Barrick, Esq. is a member of the firm of Gallian Welker & Beckstrom, LC. He is licensed to practice in California, Nevada, and Utah. His main areas of practice are veterans’ disability claims, inmate civil rights, and personal injury.
Military Retirement Primer
By Marshal S. Willick, Esq.
Dealing with military retirement benefits in divorce actions
Military retirement benefits are usually the most important part of any military divorce and the largest single marital asset in a military marriage. The rules governing what benefits are available during life and upon death, how they can be divided, and how they can be protected or lost are complex. Knowing a few basic concepts, though, can help you protect critical interests.
The most valuable asset
Retirement benefits are usually the most valuable asset of marriages, often exceeding the value of all other marital assets combined.
In Nevada, all pension benefits are community property, including benefits that are still being earned (“unvested”) or not yet being paid (“unmatured”). This is because the benefits accrued during marriage and future receipt of retirement income is actually a large part of what was earned.
The primary military retirement is a “defined benefit” type of pension plan, in that it does not have a cash balance, but pays monthly benefits for life. Most military personnel retire after 20 years active service in their early 40s and receive a lifetime pension of half their basic pay, which usually $2,000 or more (depending on rank and length of service) every month for life, plus cost of living adjustments (“COLAs”). Such benefits have a “present value” of a million dollars or more. Reservists have a slightly different retirement system, which usually begins payments only after age 60.
Occasionally, the military permits members to take an early retirement without serving the minimum 20 years. Service can also extend many years after 20. If the divorce is during service, the attorney for the spouse must know about these possibilities and build protections for the spouse into the decree.
A former spouse’s right to a portion of retired pay as property terminates upon the death of either the member or the former spouse, unless the court order explicitly makes the former spouse the beneficiary of the Survivor’s Benefit Plan (“SBP”), as discussed below.
Military retirement division may be made by percentage or dollar sum. COLAs will be included if divided by percentage, securing both parties against erosion of the value of their portions of the retirement by inflation.
Most states divide pensions according to the “time rule,” in which each spouse gets 50 percent of whatever benefits accrued during the marriage. Under the USFSPA, a spouse may get direct payment of up to 50 percent of “disposable retired pay” directly from the military pay center (“DFAS”). If arrears are also owed for child or spousal support, up to 65% can be collected. Some changes to these rules have been proposed in Congress, and the entire military retirement system is slated for overhaul.
There is also a Thrift Savings Plan
The Thrift Savings Plan (“TSP”) is a defined contribution type of plan for federal employees made available to military members in 2001. Like a private employee’s 401(k) plan, it diverts pre-tax funds into retirement savings. As of 2012, a “Roth” (post-tax) option was added.
TSP balances are divisible upon divorce; typically, each spouse is awarded half of whatever benefits accrued during the marriage. Orders dividing TSP should deal with gains and losses, select a proper valuation date, etc.
Special jurisdictional rules
Special jurisdictional rules must be followed in military cases for the order to be enforceable. An order dividing retired pay as property will only be honored if the court had personal jurisdiction over the member by reason of: (1) residence in the territorial jurisdiction of the court (other than by military assignment); (2) domicile in the territorial jurisdiction of the court; or (3) consent to the jurisdiction of the court. You should never default a member in a divorce case who has not made a general appearance.
Disposable retired pay
In 1991, divisible “disposable pay” was re-defined so that each spouse gets a portion of the retirement before taxes, which each pays on the sum he or she receives.
A military member with a disability claim will receive the same or more money monthly (depending on which program is involved), and the payments become partly or entirely tax-free, and so are much more valuable.
Some disability awards are in addition to the retired pay, so the member receives additional sums and the spouse is unaffected. But some disability elections greatly reduce the “disposable retired pay” and therefore reduce the money paid to the former spouse. The attorney for the non-military spouse must understand all the disability programs and how to draft appropriate indemnification clauses to protect the spouse from being divested of benefits after divorce.
The attorneys have to anticipate post-divorce status changes and build that anticipation into the decree.
The “Ten Year Rule”
Military retired pay divided as property may only be directly paid from the military pay center to the former spouse if the parties were married for at least ten years during military service.
If the marriage overlapped service by less than ten years, the right still exists, but the spouse has to obtain the monthly payments from the retired member. Alternatively, the court could characterize the payments as a stream of spousal support in order to obtain direct payment from the military pay center.
Other military benefits to consider
The military retirement system is different than most other plans, especially regarding survivorship benefits. If the spouse dies first, the spouse’s full share of the benefit automatically reverts to the member. But if the member dies first, the spouse gets nothing at all, unless the SBP is in place.
The SBP provides monthly payments of 55 percent of the selected retired pay amount to a single named survivor. The divorce court can name the former spouse as beneficiary. There is a premium for coverage, and there is a way to arrange for that premium to be paid by the member or the spouse to that it be divided between them.
If the parties were married for 20 years during military service, the spouse is entitled to free Tricare until eligible for Medicare. If the overlap of marriage and service was shorter than 20 years, lesser benefits are available, and most former military spouses can get Continuation of Health Care Benefits Plan (“CHCBP”) medical coverage, although there is a premium cost for that coverage.
Much greater explanation of these and other aspects of military retirement in divorce, including a detailed article titled “Divorcing the Military,” drafting guides, model clauses, special calculators, and lots more, is posted at http://willicklawgroup.com/military-retirement-benefits/.
Marshal S. Willick, Esq. is the Principal of the Willick Law Group, an A/V-rated Las Vegas family law firm, and QDROMasters, its pension order drafting division. He can be reached at 3591 East Bonanza Rd., Ste. 200, Las Vegas, NV 89110-2198. Phone: (702) 438-4100; fax: (702) 438-5311; e-mail: Marshal@WillickLawGroup.com.
Impact of VA Disability on Social Security Disability Rating
By Mark Rouse, Esq.
Despite the fact that the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) and the Veteran’s Administration (“VA”) are both federal administrative agencies, an individual could be found disabled under one program but not the other. This can be especially disheartening to a veteran who has a 100 percent VA disability rating but is denied Social Security Disability benefits. In 2014, SSA examined the relationship between the two programs and launched a new initiative in March 2014 to provide 100 percent disabled veterans with an expedited hearing process in SSA disability cases. See L. Scott Muller, Nancy Early, and Justin Ronca, Veterans Who Apply For Social Security Disabled-Worker Benefits After Receiving A Department Of Veterans Affairs Rating Of “Total Disability” for Service-Connected Impairments: Characteristics and Outcomes, Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 74, No. 3, 2014. Nevertheless, the expedited process does not guarantee that a 100 percent disabled veteran will receive Social Security Disability benefits.
Veteran’s disability benefits are awarded to veterans who incur an injury or contract a disease that is service connected. See id. The SSA essentially administers two types of disability benefits: 1) old-age, survivors, and disability insurance, commonly referred to as Social Security Disability benefits, and 2) Supplemental Social Security Income (“SSI”). See id. Workers fund the Social Security Disability trust funds through payroll contributions. See id. However, SSI payments are funded through general taxes, and are only available to those with little or no resources. See id.
Generally, 100 percent disabled veterans are only eligible to Social Security Disability benefits and not SSI. See id. This is because Social Security Disability benefits are based on the veteran’s earning record and SSI is based on an individual’s resources. See id. One hundred percent of disabled veterans usually do not qualify for SSI because the VA payment benefits exceeds the eligibility amount for SSI. See id. For example, in 2016, a 100 percent disabled veteran, with no children, is entitled to monthly benefits of $2,906.83. U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Compensation Benefits Rate Table – Effective 12/1/14, http://www.benefits.va.gov/COMPENSATION/resources_comp01.asp. However, to be eligible for SSI, a single individual cannot have more than $2,000 in resources. Social Security Administration, Understanding Supplemental Security Income SSI Resources – 2016 Edition, https://www.ssa.gov/ssi/text-resources-ussi.htm.
SSA undertook an evaluation of the relationship between VA disability and Social Security Disability benefits in 2014. See L. Scott Muller, et al., supra. SSA opined that the programs are fundamentally different because the VA operates a disability compensation program, whereas SSA administers an income replacement program. See id. Additionally, SSA found that the diagnosis of disability differs between the two programs. SSA found that the VA’s primary diagnosis reflects the impairment to which the VA assigns the highest rating. However, the SSA’s primary diagnosis generally reflects the condition that either renders the individual disabled or has the most significant effect on his or her ability to work, as identified by the decision maker. See id. Perhaps most surprisingly, these federal agencies define diagnoses differently. For instance, unlike the VA, SSA has no separate diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), instead using more broadly defined categories such as “anxiety-related disorders.” Id. Thus, SSA finds that it has difficulty comparing the primary diagnoses between SSA and the VA, because they define them differently. See id.
Because SSA is a federal administrative agency, lawsuits against the agency must be filed in federal court. As a result, rulings on the weight to be given to a VA disability rating vary by federal circuit. In the Ninth Circuit, a VA disability determination is ordinarily entitled to great weight. See e.g., Berry v. Astrue, 622 F.3d 1228, 1236 (9th Cir. 2010). However, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) may give less weight to the VA’s decision if the ALJ provides “persuasive, specific, valid reasons for doing so that are supported by the record.” Id. In other words, if a disabled veteran’s testimony during a hearing demonstrates that they aren’t limited in their activities of daily living, or their medical records do not demonstrate a limitation on their activities of daily living, then their case will most likely be denied for Social Security Disability benefits.
At the end of the day, a VA disability rating does carry weight in SSA cases. However, what weight such a rating is given is ultimately up to the ALJ assigned to the case. The fact that both agencies have disability programs but define “disability” differently is confusing, especially to disabled veterans. It is likely that SSA will continue to evaluate the relationship between the programs and hopefully work to streamline the Social Security Disability benefits program for disabled veterans.
Mark Rouse, Esq. is an associate attorney with Edward M. Bernstein & Associates. Mr. Rouse focuses his practice on personal injury and Social Security Disability.
VA Disability Benefits Taxation and the Federal Tax Implications of Retroactive Disability Determinations
By Suzanne M. Warren, Esq.
Disabled veterans combat plenty of hurdles in their post-service civilian lives. Safely crossing the federal income tax law minefield is one more battle. With Internal Revenue Service (IRS) forces looming large, veterans may have legal questions regarding the taxability of their disability benefits.
For veterans and lawyers, IRS rules appear daunting. But this article will minimize the jargon and educate you on: (1) the basic rules of veterans’ disability benefits taxation; and (2) the income tax consequences of retroactive disability determinations.
Military pensions are taxable income
Start with the basics. Not many sources of income escape the grips of federal taxation. The Internal Revenue Code, U.S. Code Title 26 Section 61, says, “Gross income means all income from whatever source derived,” and the IRS has triumphed in virtually all conflicts aimed at narrowing this rule.
Section 61 specifically provides that gross income includes pensions. Military retirement pensions therefore count towards a taxpayer’s gross income. It should be noted at this point that individuals calculate their taxable income from their gross income, but the computational details are not necessary for this article.
Service-connected disability benefits are not taxable income
Section 104 of the Internal Revenue Code provides some exceptions to gross income. Relevant to veterans is section 104(a)(4), which excludes amounts received as a pension, annuity, or similar allowance for personal injuries or sickness resulting from active service in the armed forces. So a veteran’s “service-connected” or “service-related” disability benefits do not count as gross income.
Here are some basic examples using these rules so far.
Example 1. A veteran retires after 20 years of Army service. At retirement, he is granted a 50 percent disability rating for knee and back injuries. He receives both monthly military retirement income and disability income. His military retirement income is taxable; his disability income is not taxable.
Example 2. A veteran completes five years of Naval service and receives an honorable discharge. At discharge, she receives a 40 percent disability rating as a result of hearing loss sustained during her service. She receives monthly disability income that is not taxable.
Example 3. A veteran completes seven years of an eight-year service commitment. The Air Force medically retires him for several reasons under an honorable discharge. He receives both monthly military retirement pay and disability pay. His retirement pay is taxable; his disability pay is not.
Veterans’ disability benefits can take different forms
The simplest type of disability benefit is a monthly check from the VA. But disability benefits could also be: (1) grants provided to retrofit a home for wheelchair living; (2) motor vehicle grants for veterans who have lost the use of a limb; or (3) benefits under a dependent-care assistance program.
Under U.S. Code Title 38 – Section 5301, veterans’ benefits under any law administered by the Veterans Administration are exempt from taxation. Therefore, lawyers representing veterans should pay attention to how a particular benefit is administered, rather than its form, such as cash, grant, or third party payment.
The retroactive nature of VA disability ratings
As with taxes, the disability issues that veterans encounter are not always straightforward. For example, many veterans experience circumstances leading to retroactive service-connected VA disability ratings.
For example, a young veteran completes his service commitment and receives a final disability rating of zero percent. During his first two weeks of boot camp, he twisted his ankle but recovered completely. As he gets older, however, he experiences daily leg pain and applies for disability benefits. After a year, the VA grants him a 20 percent service-connected disability rating.
Another veteran receives a gunshot wound to her shoulder during combat. She retires with a 50 percent disability rating. After a few years, her shoulder instability severely deteriorates, and she claims an increased disability rating. The VA takes 6 months to process her application and increases her disability rating to 90 percent.
It is not unusual for the VA to spend months–perhaps years–approving a veteran’s disability claim. Any new disability rating or increased rating is effective retroactively to the veteran’s application date. So what are the tax consequences?
In early 1966, retired Army Colonel Zebulon L. Strickland filed a VA claim requesting an increased disability rating. Months later, the VA rated Strickland as 100 percent disabled. On his 1966 income tax return, Col. Strickland excluded the increased benefits from his gross income. This amounted to $208 per month (Strickland’s new monthly benefit), multiplied by the nine months the VA took to decide his claim.
The IRS did not like Strickland’s tax return and sent him a notice of deficiency for $381. Without a lawyer, Strickland took his case to the tax court and lost.
So the colonel appealed. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the tax court, holding that under section 104(a)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code, Strickland was entitled to retroactively exclude his disability income. Strickland v. Commissioner, 540 F.2d 1141 (4th Cir. 1976). “I felt good because I thought I had licked ‘em.” said Col. Strickland. “Old Army Man Fights Taxation of V.A. Benefits,” New York Times, Nov. 7, 1977 available at http://www.nytimes.com/1977/11/07/archives/old-army-man-fights-taxation-of-va-benefit-old-army-man-in-irs.html.
Refusing to back down, the IRS disagreed with the Fourth Circuit and issued internal guidance: Col. Strickland did not have to pay, but veterans outside the Fourth Circuit did. Id. It took a few years and a few letters by Col. Strickland to Congress, but the IRS finally agreed to follow the Strickland holding through Revenue Ruling 78-161.
Retroactive disability ratings may lead to viable tax refund claims
What if a veteran has already filed a tax return, paid income tax, and later receives a retroactive disability rating? Is the veteran entitled to a tax refund? The short answer is yes.
For example, assume veteran John is healthy and receives a military pension. He timely files his 2015 tax return and pays the correct amount of tax.
In the meantime, on July 1, 2015, veteran John had filed a VA disability claim. On July 1, 2016, the VA approves his 70 percent disability rating, effective July 1, 2015.
Under the Internal Revenue Code Section 6511, taxpayers may claim tax refunds by filing amended returns. Generally, a taxpayer has three years from the date he filed his tax return to claim a refund. Veteran John filed his 2015 return on April 15, 2016. When his VA disability claim is approved on July 1, 2016, he is within this three-year window and may file an amended return to claim his refund. In order to assist disabled veterans even more, section 6511(d)(8), extends the three-year statute of limitations until one year from the date of the VA’s disability determination.
In the 1970s, Col. Strickland said: “Disabled veterans, almost by definition, are tired, sick, old men. We are not wealthy . . . the number of dollars is small. Very few find the time or the money to fight [the IRS.]” Id. But Col. Strickland fought the IRS on his own and won. Armed with the basic rules set forth in this article, Nevada lawyers should not hesitate to do the same for their disabled veteran clients.
Suzanne M. Warren, Esq. was a trial attorney for the IRS Office of Chief Counsel from 2009 to 2015. She is currently the City of Las Vegas’ Business Licensing Compliance Manager and is Of Counsel at the Dixon Law Group, focusing on tax controversy litigation.
She thanks the following veterans for their input while drafting this article: Jim Azar, Jeff McClish, and Ryan Black.
Project Salute to Serve Veterans
By Krissta Kirschenheiter, Esq.
This Veterans Day, in collaboration with the State Bar’s Young Lawyers Division and local pro bono attorneys, Nevada Legal Services will be hosting our Fourth Annual Project Salute event at Palace Station, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The Project Salute event brings together attorney volunteers that give back to our Veterans by providing free assistance on a variety of legal topics.
Veterans Administration (VA) disability compensation provides monthly benefits to veterans in recognition of the effects of disabilities, diseases, or injuries incurred or aggravated during active military service. There are numerous types of claims that apply to disability compensation. Additionally, there are claims that are filed for special circumstances, which might include a claim for a temporary 100 percent rating due to surgery for a service-connected disability or additional compensation based on being in need of regular aid and attendance.
To best prepare for the numerous questions at the Project Salute event regarding VA Benefits, pro bono attorneys first attended a specialized Veterans Benefits CLE in August required for accreditation to practice before the VA. Nonetheless, if additional attorneys would like to volunteer at the Project Salute event to provide assistance to veterans on a variety of other legal matters, including family law, bankruptcy, collections, and civil rights matters, Nevada Legal Services would gladly appreciate your service! Please feel free to contact our Las Vegas Office Pro Bono Coordinator, Caroline Schwartz, by phone at (702) 386-0404, Extension 170, or by email at email@example.com to see how you can give back this Veterans Day!
Krissta Kirschenheiter is the Directing Attorney of Pro Bono for Nevada Legal Services, Nevada’s only non-profit legal services organization that serves the entire state of Nevada. You can reach Krissta by calling (702) 386-0404, Extension 125, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Nevada Attorney General’s Office of Military Legal Assistance: Helping our Military Heroes Feel @EASE
By Special Assistant Attorney General Nic Danna
The liberties we enjoy today are in large part due to the personal sacrifices made by our service members and veterans past and present. As a way of honoring and supporting local military heroes, Attorney General Adam Paul Laxalt created the Office of Military Legal Assistance @EASE program, the nation’s first attorney general-led public/private partnership giving our military communities access to pro bono civil legal services. The @EASE program strives to bolster military readiness by providing service members with the knowledge that the program has the capacity to manage legal affairs in their absence. In practice, the program pairs military service members in need of legal assistance with pro bono private legal counsel for civil matters including consumer fraud, military rights, immigration, landlord/tenant, predatory lending, and creditor/debtor issues. The program has partnered with the Nevada State Bar, county bars, and numerous statewide legal organizations to recruit more than 150 local attorneys willing to represent our service members and their families free of charge. The program also works with Nevada Legal Services to provide monthly workshops dedicated to drafting free wills and powers of attorney for Nevada veterans.
To date, the program has helped military personnel and veterans handle over 300 pro bono matters since our launch in July 2015. The program was also named a “Best Practice Program” by the Department of Defense and recommended for duplication in states throughout the country. With this program, we hope to demonstrate a well-deserved commitment to our military communities.
Should you wish to volunteer pro bono hours to the Office of Military Legal Assistance, please contact Heather Cooney at HCooney@ag.nv.gov.
Special Assistant Attorney General Nic Danna serves as the Director of the Office of Military Legal Assistance. He is a former prosecutor for the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office and currently services as a captain in the U.S. Army JAG Corps.
Serving Those Who Served: Veterans Treatment Courts
By Judge Mark Stevens
The first Veterans Treatment Court (“VTC”) was founded in 2008 in Buffalo, New York by the Honorable Robert Russell. Noticing the increased number of veterans in his drug and mental health courts, he knew that more needed to be done to help veterans. With the assistance of Veterans Affairs, a new specialty court focusing on veterans was created. Other jurisdictions began to follow Judge Russell’s lead, and, in 2009, Nevada passed legislation to create veterans treatment courts.
Veterans treatment courts are not a get-out-of-jail-free card for veterans. Participants are placed on probation for a minimum of one year and are closely monitored throughout the duration of the program. The VTC model requires frequent status checks, mandatory attendance at treatment sessions, random drug and alcohol testing, and completion of all requirements set by statute.
Mentors are an essential element to the success of VTC. Mentors are individuals who have served in the armed forces and volunteer their time to act as “battle buddies,” providing guidance to their fellow veterans through the rigorous program.
A recent research study in Ohio found that 89.5 percent of participating veterans remained arrest free and experienced significant improvements with PTSD, substance abuse, and depression. The progress that veterans treatment courts have made is promising. For example, since 2011, Henderson’s VTC has had 108 veterans successfully graduate from the program. We hope to see veterans treatment courts across the nation continue to grow and serve the veterans that served our country.
For more information regarding the Henderson Veterans Treatment Court, please visit: http://hendersonveteranscourts.com.
Judge Mark Stevens has served as Henderson Municipal Court Judge in Department 1 since 2007. In 2011, Judge Stevens initiated the Veterans Treatment Court program in Henderson.
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