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Hawaii Soldiers Coming Home

For many soldiers getting back from Iraq or Afghanistan, the battle has just begun.


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Dr. Ken Hirsch, pictured here in a group therapy room, leads the Traumatic Stress Disorders Program at Tripler, using techniques such as cognitive processing therapy to help patients recover from PTSD.

Photo: Mark Arbeit

In addition to a fact-finding program called Healing the Trauma of War, Mental Health America of Hawaii recently launched a program aimed specifically at helping homeless women veterans. Funded by a $300,000 federal grant, POWER Up! works with veterans to develop individualized plans to get them employed, housed and healthy. Foster says POWER Up!, which started July 1, hopes to enroll 90 veterans within a year. As of the beginning of November, it had eight.

If the safety nets provided by the VA and nonprofit organizations don’t catch veterans in trouble, the last, most tragic, catchall is the court system. Finn’s brush with the law came out of a traffic violation, but other Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have been getting into more serious trouble. Sometimes it happens in spectacular fashion: In August, Clayborne Conley, a former Hawaii National Guardsman who had returned from an Iraq deployment in 2005 and later attended Tripler’s outpatient PTSD program, murdered his ex-girlfriend and her daughter, before killing himself.

More common, however, are patterns of domestic abuse. Michael Broderick, who, until last month, was a Family Court judge, says that, in the four years he presided over the domestic abuse calendar, he saw more than 1,000 cases specifically dealing with military personnel and veterans. He’s also seen a significant spike in the number of temporary restraining order requests from family members of veterans.

Broderick says he could often spot an Iraq veteran in his courtroom without even looking at the paperwork for the case. “They were very rigid, very ‘yes, sir! no, sir!’ And not in an appropriate way; it was unhealthy,” he says. “They would be tapping their hand or their leg the entire time the court proceeding was going on. They would cry very easily. I’m not a psychiatrist, but it was clear to me that these guys had been traumatized.”

And there was an unsettling similarity to many of the domestic abuse cases involving soldiers and veterans, he says, both in the stories told by wives and girlfriends, and the response of the defendants. “Most [civilian] guys come in and deny it,” Broderick says. “But the military men would admit they did it, and often say they needed help. And they almost always tied their behavior back to their experiences in war.”

It was enough of a trend to catch the ears of lawmakers. State Rep. Mark Takai sponsored a House bill earlier this year that would have created a temporary Hawaii Veterans Court within the Judiciary. Much like the other specialty courts within the Judiciary, such as Drug Court or Family Court, a Veterans Court would aim to get offenders treatment instead of jail time.

The bill never made it to the Senate, but then-Chief Justice Ronald Moon saw enough merit in the idea to run with it. He appointed Judge Ed Kubo to head a committee exploring the logistics and cost of creating a Veterans Court, or something similar to it. Kubo says that, in a time when the cash-strapped Judiciary is undergoing furloughs, it’s not clear that Hawaii can afford yet another specialty court, but that some smaller steps could definitely be taken. The committee is currently meeting with representatives from the military, the nonprofit community and other interested parties; Kubo estimates that his committee will submit its findings to the new chief justice, Mark Recktenwald, by early next year.

Broderick, who stepped down to become the president and CEO of the YMCA of Honolulu, says the idea of a Veterans Court enjoys wide support among Hawaii’s judges, as long as the costs can be worked out. “You do need to hold these veterans accountable, but it’s possible to do it in a compassionate way,” he says. “We want to get them the help they need. And that’s what this effort is about.”

Today, Finn is beginning the road to recovery, attending regular counseling and preparing himself to find a job and become independent again. But his life has been changed forever. Not only does he no longer want to end up on Wall Street, he regularly finds himself struggling with basic existential questions. “How am I supposed to go on living a happy, wonderful life like I thought I wanted to, when there’s so many things wrong with the world?” he asks. “What’s morally right?”

“I had these naive ideals as an 18-year-old,” Finn says. “Yeah, we’re the best, we’re going to fix the world. But it’s ridiculously more complicated than that. I feel guilty about the feelings I had before.”

And after all he’s been through, he’s still nostalgic about his time in the Army. Sometimes, he says, the only thing keeping him from re-enlisting is of his mother, who fears for his life.

As the United States military’s commitments overseas continue into the foreseeable future, it’s clear that the number of veterans affected by service in Iraq and Afghanistan will continue to grow.  Like Finn, these men and women are going to require the support not only of the government, but of the communities they live in, many of them for years to come.

Carswell “Caz” Ross Jr., program coordinator for the Hawaii Office of Veterans Services, spends his days helping veterans get the services they need, and says the job has given him a long view on things. “We’ve viewed so many things on television that get resolved in half an hour, we’ve started to believe that even the most difficult problem can be solved in a week,” he says. “But I’m working with these Vietnam vets, and it’s 40 years later and they’re still dealing with it. It takes time. We have to understand that, if we commit our troops somewhere, we have to commit to helping them when they get home.”                     

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Honolulu Magazine March 2019
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