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Coming Home: Justice for our veterans

An alternative court program in Harris County, Texas, seeks to rehabilitate veterans who turn to crime for the first time
Coming Home: Justice for our veterans 12:44

The following is a script from "Coming Home" which aired on Oct. 14, 2012. Scott Pelley is the correspondent. Ashley Velie, producer.

Two and a half million Americans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan; many of them, more than once. The VA tells us about 20 percent come home with post-traumatic stress disorder, known as PTSD. So, that comes to about 500,000. For some, returning is harder than they imagined. The suicide rate for the Army is up 15 percent over last year. For the Marines its up 28 percent. A few of our troops return to become something they never thought they could be: criminals, for the first time in their lives.

Around Houston, in Harris County, Texas, 400 veterans are locked up every month. We met a judge there who saw them coming before the bench, fresh out of the warzone and he thought a lot of them were worth saving. Judge for yourself once you meet some of our troops, coming home.

Scott Pelley: How long in the Marine Corps?

Arthur Davis: Almost 22 years, sir.

Scott Pelley: Number of combat deployments?

Arthur Davis: Four altogether.

Scott Pelley: And you made first sergeant.

Arthur Davis: Yes, sir.

Scott Pelley: Leader of Marines.

Arthur Davis: Yes, sir.

Scott Pelley: It was a good life.

Arthur Davis: Yes, sir.

Let us show you two pictures of Arthur Davis. This one, with the president, was taken in 2006, in Afghanistan, when Davis was in charge of our embassy security there. This is a mug shot they took a couple of years later in the Harris County jail -- one year after his retirement from the Corps.

Arthur Davis: One of the things I swore that I'd never do was go to jail. And for seven days I was in the county jail, trying to figure out what was I going to do, thinking about all the things that I screwed up on, all the hard work that I've put myself through to get to this point in my life where I could say, you know, I did a good job. And I screwed it all up. I thought my life was over.

It could have been over. He faced up to 20 years for assault with a deadly weapon. Davis, drunk and in a rage, took a gun and a knife into a fight with a neighbor.

Arthur Davis: It was just too much for me to deal with. You know, I thought I was the toughest person I knew, I could handle anything. But I couldn't deal with my own demons.

The demons came in Iraq. When Davis was leading 200 Marines. One day his Marines were in a convoy. There was a bomb. Two were killed in this Humvee. As first sergeant, Davis was the old man, the father figure who gave advice, courage, order and discipline. He'd promised to bring them all home. He promised.

Arthur Davis: These guys, they're gone. You know, you kind of feel responsible. You know-- you know, you kind of say why not me? Why didn't it happen to me?

Symptoms of PTSD followed him home. Anger, anxiety. Civilians didn't seem to get it. He thought the world was dangerous, threats everywhere. Crowds were menacing, noises startling. Davis medicated himself.

Arthur Davis: I realized, you know, some things were happening differently. You know, I didn't want to go around crowded areas. I didn't want to go around people. I found myself getting up in the morning, drinking. Going to sleep at night, drinking. During the day, drinking. I wouldn't even go to work. You know, taking responsibility for those two guys that we lost, I mean, I just felt responsible more and more so. And now my whole support group, my brothers, Marines, they were gone.

It turned out another military brother was also in the criminal justice system. An Army veteran named Marc Carter.

Bailiff: All rise...

Texas State District Judge Marc Carter.

Marc Carter: I will give you some options, and you will tell me whether or not you want to be here or whether or not you just don't want to deal with it. And if that's the case, then I know where to send you. Prison.

Carter was watching fellow veterans, broken before the bench. Afghanistan. Iraq. Post-traumatic stress, addictions, pretty much the same story a few hundred times a month. Carter also knew that the VA hospital a few miles away had plenty of empty seats in programs for PTSD and addiction.

Marc Carter: You have to put them in a program that's going to help them, that's going to make them be successful. If you just put them out there on probation they are going to fail. If you put them on probation that is tailored to deal with their problems, PTSD and drug use, then they'll be successful. They won't have to go to prison.

Scott Pelley: Do some of these veterans not want to believe they have PTSD or not want to admit that they have that kind of problem?

Marc Carter: There is an interest-- a vested interest in them not to admit that they have PTSD while they're serving. There's a lot of self-destruction in that because you know you need the help and you're not getting it. And you have others that are just in denial, "Everybody else is wrong, not me. The whole world is wrong, I'm right." That's denial.

In 2009, Carter and other volunteers opened a court just for vets who've committed first time felonies, things like assault, robbery, drunk driving, spousal abuse. After arrest, vets have a choice, go through the regular system or come to this court with its mandatory two years of treatment and supervision. About 40 vets a year chose Judge Carter.

Marc Carter: They do more programs on this probation than they would ever do on any other probation in the state.

Scott Pelley: Are you saying this is a harder road?

Marc Carter: It's tougher for them. They make a commitment to me and that is, "I'm going to do what it takes. I'm going to go to all the programs and treatment programs." And my promise to them is, "I will be patient and I will give you time to change back to that person you were."

The road back is in court-ordered therapy, three or four times a week for addiction and post-traumatic stress. They meet in groups and individually with psychiatrists. The VA is getting a lot of credit these days for developing innovative PTSD therapies.

Harris: My reoccurring' dream was the fact that no matter how hard I tried to protect the people that were behind me, the guys that were coming, I couldn't kill. And their intention is to hurt everybody behind me and there's nothing I can do to stop it. So I wake up screaming not because I'm gonna get hurt, but because I wasn't able to stop everyone else from getting hurt.

John: Anybody have sleep paralysis?

Harris: Oh where you can't move?

John: You wake up-- you wake up and you open your eyes but you can't move your body. And you feel like somebody's about to get you? Oh it's the most terrifying experience of my life.

Kevin Thomas: There's two flashbacks that have occurred for the last seven years. I mean, I get up out of bed, I'm there. Our Hummer gets hit. And this event never even happened in Iraq. And everybody on my team in my Hummer is hurt. And I'm reaching for my M16-- my weapon. And I'm patting on the ground and I can't find it. I can't find it, over and over again.

That's Kevin Thomas, a former Marine. He was in Iraq one night on routine duty when the kind of thing happened that sears a date into a man's memory.

Kevin Thomas: It was January 26, 2005. Our unit was out at nighttime doing security. And we got the call over the radio that there was a helicopter that was down. Everybody in that perished.

Scott Pelley: What did you see?

Kevin Thomas: Wreckage, carnage, bodies.

Scott Pelley: How many?

Kevin Thomas: Twenty-five to 30 Marines, brothers, family.

Six months later, Thomas returned to his own family in Houston.

Kevin Thomas: I started drinking heavily and certain symptoms of PTSD kicked in. I didn't know what was going wrong with me. I started isolating a lot, avoidance. And little, but slowly, the things that I acquired, I lost after I came back from Iraq.

He lost his job and his family's trust. Coming home was hard because in a sense he was still at war. In Iraq he lived with hidden threats all around. His aggression was on a hair trigger. Back in Texas, he didn't want to leave the house. He was angry all the time and he finally hit his wife, felony assault.

Kevin Thomas: I was angry about unfinished business in Iraq. I wanted to go back in. I was angry of the way I viewed the world now. I was angry of people taking for granted the liberty of freedom. We give too many civilians the benefit of the doubt that they should understand and they should know, but they don't know what the world is really like and how Iraq really was.

Marc Carter: Kevin Thomas. Another Marine. How are you, sir?

Kevin Thomas: Outstanding, sir.

Marc Carter: I just want to tell you, it takes a lot of courage to go back in there and face those monsters.

Kevin Thomas:Yes, sir.

Marc Carter: Good job, sir.

Every two weeks, the vet reports to the judge. Troublemakers are kicked out and sent to the regular probation system. But there haven't been many of those, only nine out of 100 vets so far.

Because of that, veterans' courts like this have sprung up in 27 states. There are 100 already with another 100 planned.

Marc Carter: Mr. White, how are you sir?

White: Grateful.

Marc Carter: I've heard that you've made some very smart choices lately, some very smart choices. That shows me that you understand the slippery slope that you stand on.

Marc Carter to Arthur Davis: How are you? You're looking good as always!

Arthur Davis, looking at 20 years for assault was one of the first vets in Carter's program. He hasn't had a drink in two years. And his arrest is gone from his record.

Arthur Davis to new vet: You got your whole support system here, you got your therapist you got your probation officer...

The old first sergeant is back, working with vets new to the court.

Arthur Davis: It put me back in a leadership position. The veterans' court, they prescribed a nice detailed pattern of what you needed to do in order to get on board. And it works.

Scott Pelley: You had structure again.

Arthur Davis: I had structure again.

Scott Pelley: Just like you had in the Marine Corps.

Arthur Davis: Yes, sir. I have to live this life. I can live it angry, locked up in prison, in jail or dead. Or, I can get myself together and be a positive role model for those other veterans coming home from this war.

Kevin Thomas, facing ten years in jail, instead, is set to graduate from the vet program this spring. The court even helped him get into college. Now he's rebuilding the trust of his ex-wife and his sons.

In the Marines, Thomas swore to defend the country from all enemies. It appears he's made good on that oath including the enemy within.

Scott Pelley: What was it that scared you enough to become involved in the veterans' court program?

Kevin Thomas: I didn't like the person I was.

Scott Pelley: Were you afraid you were going to lose the boys?

Kevin Thomas: Yes.

Scott Pelley: You know, we were with you when you took the boys out for ice cream the other day. And one of them asked you, "What was it like in the Marines?" When he's a little bit older, what are you going tell him about your experience?

Kevin Thomas: I'm going to tell him that my experience and my career in the Marines was great. It's the best thing I ever did in my life. Sorry. It's the best thing I ever did in my life.

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