For some veterans the difficult transition back to everyday life is made exponentially harder by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injuries, depression and substance use disorders.
Such challenges can cause some veterans to have contact with the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, over the past 12 months, more than 750 self-identified military veterans have been ordered held in custody at the Cook County Jail pending trial. Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart has worked to provide those veterans with services while in custody to help reduce the chance of recidivism.
“Sadly, many veterans who struggle to find help for mental illness or substance use disorders wind up in jail,” Sheriff Dart said. “Our mission is to help them and connect them with services so they can lead healthier and more fulfilling lives when they eventually return home.”
To accomplish this mission, Sheriff Dart created special programing in the jail and appointed a veterans’ liaison to individually help former military service members. He also partnered with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which visits the jail weekly to meet with veterans and connect them to critical VA benefits upon release.
Correctional Officer John Coddington, a veteran himself, serves as the jail’s veterans’ liaison and works to meet every veteran in the jail. Critically, he helps them obtain an important military record, the DD-124, that is necessary to obtain Veterans Affairs benefits and to access other programs for housing, medical coverage and financial assistance. An average of 175 veterans per year receive their DD-214 through efforts at the jail.
“When I hear these guys, I know their frustration,” Coddington said. “I take personal enjoyment from getting people their benefits, whether medical or monetary or whatever it may be.”
Coddington also helps direct veterans who qualify to a special tier on the jail compound where veteran-specific programming and services are available.
On the tier, approximately 40 veterans a day have access to assistance that includes re-entry assistance, Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous and health literacy, among other services. Monthly programs include a course by the Red Cross focusing on PTSD and trauma, and a program by the not-for-profit organization, Inner Voice, that facilitates group counseling on soft skills and offers job placement assistance.
The jail also works directly with Veterans Affairs to support detainees who are still struggling with severe mental illness when they are released from custody. For those who are extremely mentally ill, Veterans Affairs will pick them up and transport them to the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago.
Coddington said the Sheriff’s programs for veterans are gratifying because they help many of the detainees break the cycles of behavior that led them to jail.
“Unfortunately, we still do get some people coming back, but I’ve got to tell you that since we started, a lot of these guys we don’t see anymore,” he said.