Helping jailed veterans Program reaches out to ex-military who often grapple with drugs, mental health

Handcuffed inmate Adam McLean struggles to sign papers for Meredith Miller at the Charleston County detention center.

What happened to the Adam McLean who once served in the Army as a demolition specialist performing joint operations overseas to combat terrorism?

That McLean seems lost in the 36-year-old man sitting at a table in a striped jail uniform, handcuffed and shackled, with two armed officers standing by.

A decade after his military service, McLean faces 15 years to life in prison if he’s convicted of first-degree burglary. He makes no excuses for the addict he’s become.

Six months in jail awaiting a court date have provided him some quality detox time. Abusing alcohol and crack cocaine, McLean was homeless when he was arrested.

“I’ve never gotten into trouble except when drugs and alcohol were involved,” he says.

He admits he needs help.

Meredith Miller, a social worker sitting beside him, is there to help McLean and others who have traded American military uniforms for inmate jumpsuits.

She coordinates the local Veterans Justice Outreach program, part of a nationwide effort by Department of Veterans Affairs’ medical centers to work with police and court systems. The goal: reach inmates who qualify for its services, including programs for substance abuse, homelessness and mental illness.

For instance, Miller can suggest that judges divert veterans’ criminal charges or sentencing if they complete VA treatment for problems with substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder, among other things. In McLean’s case, his attorney will request a diversionary sentence that requires McLean complete intensive outpatient drug rehabilitation and participate in VA transitional housing.

And if he doesn’t comply?

He will face the first-degree burglary charge and its sentence of 15 years to life.

“These are good people caught up in bad situations,” Miller says. “They could easily be you or me.”

Chief Deputy Mitch Lucas, administrator of the Charleston County detention center, is a Vietnam-era Marine veteran. He requires his staff to ask all incoming inmates whether they served.

Why? He wants to ensure Miller can find them.

Miller works out of the local Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center, which serves the area from Myrtle Beach to just south of Savannah.

In jail after jail, she finds veterans whose arrests result from a post-military life ruled by the triumvirate of drugs and alcohol, mental health problems and homelessness. Some cannot post bond; others are serving short sentences for minor crimes.

Worse: Many qualify for VA services but either don’t know about its varied programs or don’t pursue them.

Those who work with veterans agree that far too many who returned from Vietnam did not receive the help they needed at the time. The result: Many have recycled in and out of the criminal justice system for decades.

Now, thousands more veterans are returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, often after serving multiple tours with little respite and the psychological and physical wounds of combat.

“We haven’t even seen the tip of the iceberg of what’s to come,” Lucas says.

That’s why the VA wants to reach these veterans early — and often.

“Once you get trapped into the morass of the criminal justice system, your life pretty much changes forever,” Lucas says. “It’s a game-changer.”

For instance, inmates who had jobs coming in probably lost them while sitting in jail.

If they had apartments or houses, they may have lost those as well after a few months of not paying their rent or mortgage. The same goes for cars.

If they owe child support, that’s piling up, too.

“They’re making sure these veterans don’t get lost in the jungle,” Lucas says.

Thomas Bonneau, a 24-year-old with a winsome smile, sits beside Miller at a gray table. A teenage dad, he signed up for the Reserve to improve his life but never really thought he’d be sent overseas.

He was deployed to Afghanistan, where he drove delivery trucks for a year.

What did he experience?

“A lot of action.” He stares at the table for a moment. “Sometimes, too much.”

He doesn’t elaborate.

When he returned home a year ago, he moved back in with his mother and found a job driving trucks. He lost that job when he was arrested.

It is his 54th day in the Charleston County Detention Center for a traffic violation and ensuing bench warrant. When he went to his court date to request a jury trial, the judge already had called his name. In his absence, he was found guilty.

“I ended up in here.”

When he’s released any day now, he’ll be a young, unemployed father of three with no driver’s license and backed up child support payments.

But his problems go beyond the financial.

“I think I’m suffering from PTSD,” he adds.

“Tell me about your symptoms,” Miller says.

“Sometimes I can’t sleep. I have flashbacks and stuff.”

He admits he’s gone to the VA medical center because he knows he needs help.

Every time, he turned around and left.

“I don’t want anyone looking down on me,” he says softly, staring at the table between them. “I don’t want to look like I’m weak.”

Miller assures him there are countless others who feel the same way but who have overcome that fear to get help.

“We’re not going to put you in a rubber room. We’re not going to make you stay there,” she says. “We’re going to help you get on with your life.”

She offers to meet him at the hospital and show him the services available. If only he will walk in the door.

Victoria Colquitt has embarked on the painful journey to a better life. Abused growing up, she joined the Navy, where she welcomed the structure, new opportunities and sense of family among her colleagues.

She found her niche in performing aircraft safety checks. But it was stressful. One slip-up and a pilot’s life and aircraft could be at risk.

“I had to be 100 percent all of the time, but I didn’t believe in myself,” she recalls. “It snowballed.”

She began to drink, but could not stop.

She was sent to Iraq. She witnessed a man’s drowning death. And several close family members back home also died, including one to suicide. Combined with her alcoholism, it all became too much.

In 2004, Colquitt received a general honorable discharge and returned home.

“It was really difficult to transition into civilian life,” she says.

She returned to her hometown of Savannah, with its old friends and memories of abuse, where alcohol filled the empty days.

“I went downhill fast.”

Charged for a second time with driving under the influence, she went to a Veterans Treatment Court in 2010 and requested treatment at Charleston’s VA medical center. That’s when Miller stepped in, helping to negotiate the move as part of Colquitt’s sentence.

At 43, Colquitt is on probation and just completed an intensive substance abuse program. She’s living at Crisis Ministries with other female veterans. Next up: a mindfulness class, PTSD treatment and a move into a new home thanks to the guiding hand of a program that teaches basic life and financial skills.

“I feel like I can make it this time,” she says. “It’s a really good feeling to have that support.”

Reach Jennifer Berry Hawes at 937-5563.