Leaving military service does not necessarily mean just getting accolades and special benefits.
For many veterans, it can mean a struggle with brain injuries, mental health issues like post-traumatic stress syndrome or drug and alcohol abuse that can spiral into brushes with crime.
Two Harford County lawyers, who are also military veterans, would like to make the county the latest jurisdiction to have a veterans court, one which would give those who served in the armed forces a specialized docket to assist them before they get caught up in the criminal justice system.
Veterans courts, similar to the county's existing drug court program, have been gaining traction since 2008, when one was established in New York, according to The Baltimore Sun.
This past fall, Baltimore City launched a veterans docket. In November, Prince George's County received funding to create a veterans treatment court program, according to the Governor's Office of Crime Control & Prevention.
Michael Comeau and Rick Herbig believe that approach could help veterans locally. The two Army veterans are lawyers who formerly worked for the Harford County Department of Law for a number of years.
The docket would be a component of the drug and alcohol treatment court system, Herbig explained, which Circuit Court Judge William Carr was instrumental in originally supporting.
The veterans court would allow veterans to get connected with specialized resources or mentors who can understand their specific problems, Herbig said.
Comeau, who was appointed chairman of the Maryland State Bar Association's veterans courts committee, said he spent long hours trying to convince people the state needs such a concept.
"It's one of those concepts or ideas that seemed to be gathering traction, and another friend of mine who was in Afghanistan thought, 'Maybe this would work in Maryland,'" Comeau said.
He attributed the skepticism over the idea locally to "bureaucratic inertia," explaining people are concerned about the time that may be involved or lack of courtroom space.
"Maryland has never been quick to embrace any change in our judicial system," Comeau said. He oversaw the launch of the first court in Baltimore City last year, which he said "has taken off like wildfire" and is held two Tuesdays each month.
Harford's court would be structured similarly to Baltimore's court, which was set up by Baltimore Judge Halee Weinstein and emphasizes rehabilitation over incarceration.
"They have already had to expand it. They have dozens involved," Comeau said of that court. He said Prince George's County also launched a similar court independently through its Circuit Court.
Because of the nature of the offenses, such a court in Harford County would fit best into the county's District Court, he said.
Herbig said the duo "are obviously not trying to reinvent the wheel," explaining both he and Comeau served in the Army. Comeau most recently served for six months in Afghanistan in 2005.
"I was drafted out of law school and served in Vietnam for one year, in 1970," Herbig, who is 69, said.
An assistant county attorney for 38 years and past president of the Harford County Bar Association, Herbig said other Vietnam veterans who now practice law may wish to become mentors to other veterans.
Herbig said the bar association has various sections consisting of committees, one of which is on military law.
"What we tried to do is [gauge] the interest of the military law committee so we would get section status," he said. Getting the military law section allows for more possibilities and resources.
"The intent here is to capture the veteran as he or she comes into contact with the justice system at a very early entry point, get that data, find out what type of offense he or she has committed and determine if they are eligible," Herbig said.
"The idea is to get the services the veteran needs so that he or she does not become a repeat offender," he said, explaining they are still looking for justification that such a docket is needed in Harford County.
24,000 veterans in Harford
He believes there is, pointing out that a significant number of the homeless population are veterans.
He said statistics show about 24,000 veterans live in Harford County. About 7 percent of all veterans come in contact with the criminal justice system nationwide, he said.
"It is, I think, a worthwhile project if there is a need, and I am obviously trying to help veterans who may not be as fortunate as Michael and myself, who are down on their luck, who have addiction problems, alcohol and so forth," Herbig said.
Comeau, currently an assistant attorney general with the Maryland State Highway Administration, said it only makes sense to take advantage of resources already out there, provided by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as providing some help closer to home.
"You have got this whole federal agency well-funded over there to help them," he said. "They earned it. You and me, as taxpayers, pay for it."
Comeau said he was encouraged late last week when the Maryland U.S. Attorney's Office provided him with the outline of a Veterans' Diversion Program for the United States District Court for Maryland.
"This is a huge breakthrough, as it appears that the U.S. Attorney's Office is willing to establish a special program in Federal Court here in Maryland similar to what is now up and running in Baltimore City in state court," he wrote in an email. "After almost 18 months of discussions, we received an email Wednesday from the Feds, and we will be having a follow up meeting to start ironing out the details. We are really making progress.
Annie Brock, former chairperson of the Harford County Commission on Veterans Affairs, said she welcomes the possibility of having a local veterans court.
"I'm really excited about it," she said, noting that the Military Officers Association of America, which Brock has also led locally, was waiting to see what data comes out of existing veterans courts to judge their success.
"If it was successful, we would push for it," she said of the concept.
"The majority of veterans who end up in court are not habitual offenders," Brock said. "They have had issues and it ends up in court, and their issue is more underlying as a result of their military service, kind of like drug courts."
Brock said the court would get veterans looked at "in light of how their military service affected them," and the resources offered by such a court would also help other residents.
"That's a plus for our community," Brock, who lives in Bel Air, said.
"I know our suicide rate in Harford has traditionally been higher than in other parts of the state, and our percentage of veterans, until recently, has been higher than in other parts of the state," she said, explaining it is important to identify who is a veteran.
"It's amazing how long the trauma affects people," she said.
Harford County Councilman Jim McMahan, an Army veteran, said Sunday he had not heard of the idea for the court but he thinks Harford veterans definitely have unique needs.
"Many times, veterans, especially from the Vietnam era and, more recently, from the Middle East, indeed have special problems and many times those problems are exacerbated by behavior that results in arrest," McMahan said.
"I believe that, based upon the experience of other jurisdictions, that this would perhaps be a very positive move for our veterans. They do have special needs," he said.
McMahan said those needs are "exactly" why Harford County Executive Barry Glassman asked him to revamp the county's veterans affairs commission.
"We made it a totally different organization, where it is service-oriented, service-based," he said. "We have a chaplain, we have people on the veterans commission who have links to the [Veterans Administration] and they get first-line advice."
"We are also trying to establish an informational link to attorneys that would be sympathetic to veterans, and the veterans commission has a new director, Johnny Boker," he said.
Herbig noted the veterans court cases could provide opportunities for bar association members to work pro bono. Such work is encouraged by the American Bar Association and state associations and Maryland Court of Appeals to a minimum of 50 hours annually.
"In the Army, you have the buddy system. You looked out for yourself, but you also looked out for your buddy," Herbig said.