After a third of veterans say they were arrested, a new effort to figure out why
After nearly a decade of service in the Marine Corps, Ron Self could tie a rope strong enough to drag military vehicles through combat zones in Africa. But serving time in a prison cell years later, he couldn’t get the sheets he had tied together to hold.
“When I tried to hang myself and the rope broke and I was on my knees, I realized immediately that wasn’t – that wasn’t – the solution,” he said. he told ABC News.
After more than a decade incarcerated for a freeway shooting, Self said he’s still dealing with the anger and shame of his arrest.
He’s not alone: A third of veterans say they’ve been arrested, according to a new report from the Council on Criminal Justice, citing a 2017 study that focused on military service and crime.
“When you separate and are no longer a part of something that’s bigger than anything you’ve been a part of in your entire life – that is, military service – and you don’t have plus that camaraderie, it may take a while, definitely, a dark turn,” Self said.
That’s what happened to him, he said: Self was a decorated Marine, rewarded for bravery in a helicopter crash in South Korea when he was medically discharged in the 1960s. 90. But, he said, he felt increasingly unstable and estranged from civilian life. What he thinks is why, in part, he agreed to be a mercenary and attempt to kill someone on his commute to work.
“I was lying in the back of a truck in a sniper hole built into that truck,” Self recalled the 1994 incident, in which he armed himself on the highway with a rifle. sniper. “I was looking at him [the victim] through the telescope reticle on the rifle and I remember thinking how easy it would be to do this and then take the off ramp and go.
Instead, Self said he aimed at the lower right corner of the car’s windshield and fired two shots, several seconds apart, in what he says was an attempt to avoid killing the man.
“My intention was to make it public so that [the person who wanted him killed] couldn’t do it with someone else when it failed,” Self said.
He still remembers the reaction of a woman in a nearby car.
“The terror on his face from that windshield exploding and the gunshots going off – that terror is something I’ve only ever seen in combat,” he said. “The difference was that we were there to arrest the people who were causing it, and in that moment it was me…I can’t even explain how it hit me psychologically.”
The driver behind the smashed windshield was injured but alive. Self was later arrested for conspiracy to commit murder, attempted murder, and shooting a weapon within city limits.
“The fact that I did what I did, I think on a subconscious level, made me withdraw from society because I felt like I didn’t belong in society,” he said. he declares.
Self was convicted and initially sentenced to 32 years to life in prison, with the possibility of parole.
After attempting suicide while incarcerated, he decided he couldn’t let other ex-servicemen go through the same anguish.
“The solution would be a program that would help other veterans not make the bad choices I made,” he said.
In prison, Self-creation of a peer-to-peer mentorship programVeterans Healing Veterans from the Inside Out, to support fellow military veterans going through incarceration, past trauma, and suicidal ideation.
He then managed to argue in a parole hearing that he was trying to avoid killing someone on the highway and was released from prison in 2017 after serving 23 years.
The former Marine recently joined the Council on Criminal Justice as an inaugural member of the Veterans Justice Commission, which was launched last month.
Self will work alongside two former defense secretaries, Chuck Hagel and Leon Panetta, as part of a 15-member body investigating veteran arrest rates. The two-year commission will also make policy recommendations to better support former service members.
“There was an injustice suffered here,” Hagel told ABC, adding that “no one paid attention to it.”
He believes the council provides “a force, a position, a structure that we can work in and on to bring some of the best minds in the country to this issue.”
“We need to do a better job,” he said of the society supporting veterans returning from war. “And it’s not enough to say, well, we can do more. With this commission, hopefully what we can do is we can be specific.”
The commission recognizes more than 181,500 veterans in prison or prisons across the United States, citing the latest count estimated in 2011-2012 by the Department of Justice. According to the same data, 8% of those incarcerated in local jails and state and federal prisons in the United States are veterans.
The majority of incarcerated veterans are convicted of violent crimes and nearly twice as many veterans are serving life sentences as their non-veteran counterparts, according to the commission’s report, citing a 2016 survey by the DOJ.
The commission identified unique risk factors among people returning from war that make them more likely to engage in criminal activity. These factors include post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, increased mental health issues, more frequent substance abuse, and financial insecurity.
Federal, state, and local programs have been established to help incarcerated veterans. The Veterans Justice Outreach Program was launched in 2009 by the Department of Veterans Affairs to better identify incarcerated veterans and connect them with appropriate resources. While the U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs refers to 138,000 veterans served by this program over a four-year period, the commission also acknowledges a general lack of knowledge among service members about the systems of support available to them before and after their arrest.
When Self was processed through his medical release after his military service, he said he was not informed of all the resources available to him.
“I had no idea I had any potential for service-related benefits or actual monetary benefits,” he said. “I had no idea about any of this.”
“I don’t want to blame the military,” Self continued. “And I’m not. And I’m not playing the victim. I own a very bad decision that I made. But I’m also considering now – I made this decision five months after several people with whom I served were killed, and I never dealt with it.”
After years in the military, the Marine Corps had become his family, where he said he found “people who basically chewed the same dirt, spat out the same bud.”
The chronic pain he faced and which prompted his eventual medical discharge from the Marines, he now says, was more tolerable overseas because of his relationships with his military colleagues. “To be removed from this – it was an absolute loss of identity.”
“It’s an inappropriate cry for help,” Self said of service members committing crimes.
He acknowledges his unique position as a formerly incarcerated veteran on the commission to answer those cries.
“Anyone who raised their hand to serve was trusted to carry a weapon to defend this country. I violated that trust by doing what I did,” he said of his shooting . “I may never be able to regain that level of confidence. I can definitely spend the rest of my life trying.”
Self believes the commission will be an important next step in studying the larger issue and ensuring incarcerated veterans know they are not alone or beyond correction and rehabilitation.
“We all have the capacity for redemption. We all have the capacity to change the way we frame and view our past,” Self said of other service members who may have found themselves in a similar position to him. “If we can reframe how it guides us through our lives, it could be much more helpful to everyone leaving the military and to the society we fought for.”
ABC News’ Matt Seyler contributed to this report.