When Army Sgt. Paul Costello returned home to West Chester from an 18-month tour in Iraq in 2006, he “went on vacation for three months,” he said, laughing.
“I was so burnt out,” he said. “I was just so happy to be home.”
But his initial relief was short-lived, he said. He grew depressed and suicidal. He began drinking almost every day – “I was trying to go out and have as much fun as possible,” Costello, 28, said. “I felt I had missed out on so much.”
He worked 80-hour weeks to keep his mind off the nightmares and the insomnia, the memories of 18 months in war-torn Ramadi, “which was and still is one of the worst places in Iraq,” he said. He started taking antidepressants, only to abruptly stop, triggering even more severe depression.
And, then, just months after returning from Iraq, Costello woke up in the hospital facing a burglary charge. Incensed over a fight with an ex-girlfriend, he got drunk, blacked out, showed up at her apartment, and picked a fight with her boyfriend, breaking a door in the process, he said. It was his first criminal offense.
Costello had spent two years waiting to be sentenced and a third on probation when Chester County launched its Veterans Court program in 2011, one of about a dozen counties in the state, including Philadelphia, Montgomery, and Delaware, to establish a separate court to deal with offenders whose experience in combat zones may have contributed to their criminal behavior.
Costello was its first participant, and since then the county has accepted 15 other veterans into the program. Four have graduated.
The program generally admits nonviolent offenders – a murder, rape, or even a firearms charge, for example, will render them ineligible for Veterans Court.
“That’s a selling point for the public,” said Pat Carmody, the prosecutor assigned to Veterans Court. “We want to assure them we’re not putting dangerous people back on the street.”
But the county does try to treat crimes involving veterans on a case-by-case basis, said Judge Thomas Gavin, a former captain in the Marine Corps and a Vietnam War veteran who presides over the special court.
“It’s not an assembly-line approach,” he said. “We’re not looking to have a strict set of parameters. When it’s black and white, the gray gets missed.”
Under the system, eligible veterans can be released into an intensive probationary program that combines mental health or drug treatment with frequent check-ins with judges and probation officers. They’re called in for random drug tests and required, as necessary, to undergo electronic monitoring.