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

Nov 5, 2015
Originally published on November 9, 2015 2:46 pm

At the county court in Waukesha, Wis., in 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, drunken driving, stealing booze while on parole, battery while in prison. Then the judge listed an almost equal number of previous opportunities he'd 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 Department of Veterans Affairs agrees: Carlson has debilitating post-traumatic stress disorder. Being locked up isn't helping, he says.

"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 No. 1 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 outlast 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 hypervigilant."

Hypervigilance 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 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 of 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 counterinsurgency 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 to the extreme, doing thousands of pushups and long, CrossFit-style workouts.

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 persuade 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 and 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 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 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," Rock says. "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 the front, toward the judge.

The case would decide whether 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 has 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's pleased — not just with the sentence.

"I mean at the end he called me a fine young man," Carlson says. "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 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now a catch-22 for today's generation of war veterans. The catch goes something like this. Young men and women go off to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan. Some of them suffer from PTSD when they come home. And because of the PTSD, they get in trouble. Some end up in prison.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

And that is about the worst place to find treatment for what got them there in the first place. Today, we have the story of one veteran who's caught in that catch-22.

SIEGEL: David Carlson has been behind bars and in Wisconsin most of the last five years. When NPR's Quil Lawrence first spoke with him, he was hoping to get out soon. Our story starts here when Quil gets a phone call from David Carlson in jail.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Begin speaking now.

DAVID CARLSON: Hello.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: How's it going?

CARLSON: Not too bad, same old. Maintenance was in here, so we were locked down for a few hours.

LAWRENCE: Carlson called from the payphone at the Waukesha County Jail outside Milwaukee. We started talking over the summer. Carlson did two combat tours in Iraq. Then he came home, got in trouble, got arrested. He says war and prison takes some of the same survival skills.

CARLSON: When I had been on patrols in Iraq (inaudible) the same thing. You know, Iraqis - they know if you're a soft target. They know if you're a hard target. And it's the same in prison.

LAWRENCE: So in prison, Carlson made it known 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. He got in plenty of fights, which is why he came up with his own version of prison basic training.

CARLSON: The No. 1 rule is take the initiative. My training was always geared around keeping very good cardio because I knew no matter how good a fighter I was, as long as I could outlast him, I would win. I came - you know, I came up with all kinds of philosophies in my mind the same way that I had in Iraq where I was hypervigilant.

LAWRENCE: Hypervigilance 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.

CARLSON: Even staying in that mode of contemplating violence, I feel like there's no way to work on PTSD. I'm going to have to always...

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: One minute remaining.

LAWRENCE: That's the prison payphone. It cuts us off every 15 minutes.

CARLSON: I'll call you right back right now.

LAWRENCE: Most treatment for PTSD involves winding down from the combat mindset, learning not to treat the world around like a war zone. But in jail, mental health treatment is rare. VA health care is suspended. The VA doesn't track the number of veterans incarcerated. The most recent government stats are from 2004. New numbers are expected soon. A recent study did show that Iraq and Afghanistan vets in prison like David Carlson have high rates of PTSD.

CARLSON: That was the furthest I had gone in my PTSD, to the point where I almost felt like I was delusional. But in my mind, I was in combat with the jail, basically - cops against me.

LAWRENCE: Carlson's war with the guards got him thrown in solitary. That's where he began to get his life under control. He started exercising in the extreme - thousands of pushups, CrossFit workouts. He began reading the Bible every day. Last year, he got a new lawyer - Tony Cotton. He worked most of the case pro bono. He says combat vets deserve second chances.

TONY COTTON: We owe them deals. We owe them opportunities within the criminal justice system because a lot of returning veterans find themselves in the criminal justice system.

LAWRENCE: Carlson's latest second chance came in September. To explain, he's already in jail, but he's waiting for sentencing on two felonies - bail jumping and his fourth drunk driving charge. A judge will either give David Carlson one more chance to get out of jail and deal with his PTSD or put him in prison to protect the public from a repeat offender - up to six more years.

(CROSSTALK)

LAWRENCE: Before the sentencing, Carlson's family gathered outside the courtroom in Waukesha. It's tense. Carlson might walk out that day and go home with them or not come home for years. His Iraq buddies were there too - a mixed bunch. One of them has the shakes. He quit booze for the whole day to come out and show support. Others are doing fine. David Rock was there on Carlson's second Iraq deployment.

DAVID ROCK: When it came time to push, Dave was the guy to have out there. I mean, he's the definition of a leader in terms of what you want to see in combat because he had a mission, and it was to get everybody back.

LAWRENCE: After standing around for an hour, they walk into the courtroom.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: All rise, please.

DONALD HASSIN: Take your seats, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you.

LAWRENCE: David Carlson got one glimpse of his family and friends before the bailiff told him to face front toward the judge.

HASSIN: We're here today on the matter of the state of Wisconsin versus David Carlson. This is the matter before the court. Could you...

LAWRENCE: That's Judge Donald Hassin, a retired judge filling in that week. He happens to be a retired Army officer - West Point, 1971. He has a son and a daughter in the Army, which could go either way for David Carlson. The judge could be sympathetic, or he could be a hard case with none of the awe that many civilians have for combat veterans.

HASSIN: The defendant was convicted of at least four felonies in Dane County.

LAWRENCE: The judge starts reading Carlson's record. It goes on a while - drug possession, stealing booze while he was on parole, battery while he was in jail. And there's a long list of missed second chances too.

HASSIN: This criminal justice system, frankly, has bent over backwards in an effort to maintain you in the community. And frankly, Sir, the response to all that has not been good.

Mr. Cotton, what did you want to say on behalf of Mr. Carlson today?

COTTON: Thank you, Judge. He sits here today in front of you with a little more than a year and a half time in custody on this case. We're asking, your honor, to conclude that a year-and-a-half straight time is enough jail, enough confinement to address the severity of these cases. A number of the young men who served with him in Iraq are here in court. He's got his support network intact. I think the future for him is bright.

LAWRENCE: The judge, though, seems to have already made up his mind.

HASSIN: I'm looking at a fine young man sitting here in front of me today that I'm going to end up putting in prison for a little bit. And 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. The sentence today is two years on each account.

LAWRENCE: Carlson's family gasps. His Iraq buddies sit in a row staring at the judge in silence. It's not as bad as they think, though. The judge gave credit for time served.

HASSIN: That, by my estimation, Mr. Carlson, will give you a few brief months, if nothing else, to consider circumstances and better prepare you for your return to the community because the next time you come to the community, Sir, all that we wish from you is your success.

LAWRENCE: Meaning Carlson will get out in a few months instead of a few years.

HASSIN: So do I trust you, Mr. Carlson? I want to, and that's why I didn't put you in prison today for what amounts to be six years. I'm giving you the challenge, Sir, of leaving the state prison system here in a fairly short period of time. But you know what? You can do it. You're very capable of it, Mr. Carlson. These guys behind you believe that you're capable of it today as well or they wouldn't be here, right?

CARLSON: Yes, Sir.

HASSIN: OK. So to them, you owe something too, right?

CARLSON: Yes, Sir.

HASSIN: You do.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: You may begin speaking now.

LAWRENCE: Carlson called me from jail the day after the hearing.

CARLSON: Hello.

LAWRENCE: How was your night?

CARLSON: Not bad. How about yourself?

LAWRENCE: I asked him what he thought about the sentence.

CARLSON: I mean, he called me - at the end, he called me a fine young man. And honestly, wouldn't have mattered what sentence he gave me. That meant a lot to me. I think that throughout all of this, that's all I've been looking for, is just for people to see that I meant well and that I went down the wrong road.

LAWRENCE: David Carlson is trying to get on the right road. He says the PTSD is there with him in the cell, and he fights it every day. If he stays on that road, he'll be out of prison before the new year. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.