MECKLENBURG COUNTY, N.C.,None - More than 1 million veterans are in jails and prisons in the U.S. More than 2,000 of them are in North Carolina prisons, arrested for crimes ranging from theft, to drugs, to murder.
Many incarcerated veterans suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, traumatic brain injury or other mental health issues. The problems are side effects of their service that they might not recognize until it’s too late.
But there is a new effort in Mecklenburg County to help them.
Wesley Woodling will never forget the night he killed an innocent man, someone he mistakenly thought was trying to rob him.
“I was using tactics when I did it. I did it from a tree line where nobody could see me,” he said. “Like I was trained to do.”
He was trained in the National Guard and served in Iraq and Kuwait.
He was diagnosed with PTSD and bi-polar disorder and discharged in 2008. He said he was suicidal and hearing voices after he returned to his Charlotte home.
“I was paranoid whenever I went somewhere. I thought everybody was talking about me; everybody was planning to hurt me,” he said. “I think if I would have gotten the help that I needed, then this wouldn’t have happened.”
But there may be help for Woodling and other veterans who are having trouble adjusting to civilian life.
Joe Rapley works with a new pilot program in Mecklenburg County called Operation Recovery. His team identifies veterans in jail and advocates for them before they go to trial.
“We will talk to public defenders and judges and let them know what we have here is a veteran who has post-traumatic stress or a traumatic brain injury and they’ve never received any care for it,” he said.
If the court agrees, Veterans Affairs benefits cover their care. And if the veterans stick to their treatment plan, the criminal charges may be reduced.
Before the program, no one was even tracking the number of veterans behind bars, Rapley said.
“Judges have been key. We’ve had judges say, ‘We want to help out military folk, so what can we do?’” Rapley said.
Now the program has helped more than 200 jailed veterans in Mecklenburg County in the last year. Most of the veterans helped by the program had never connected with veterans services until after they were incarcerated.
The program might have worked for Woodling. “I wanted help. I was crying for help,” he said.
As he serves his sentence at Alexander Correctional Institution, he said he is finally stabilized and on the right medication.
“I think I have a chance at a normal life now, but it’s not fair because someone else doesn’t,” he said.
Operation Recovery was launched in Mecklenburg County and 13 other sites around the country. If it is successful, it could be expanded statewide or nationwide.
To learn more about the program, click here.