The father of a combat veteran who says that mental illness played a role in his son’s bad conduct discharge from the U.S. Marine Corps is asking Kansas legislators to introduce a bill aimed at reducing the likelihood that a mentally ill veteran would spend time in jail or prison instead of being treated.
"If you have mental illness and you happen to commit a crime, the judge in your case should have diversion as an option," said Jim Brann a retired telecommunications executive from Overland Park. “The judge should be allowed to require you to get treatment and to take your medications. Jail shouldn’t be the only option.”
Earlier this year, legislators passed House Bill 2655, which would allow an honorably discharged combat veteran convicted of a crime to “assert” that the combat experience and likely post-traumatic stress disorder were factors.
If these assertions are made, the court must then confirm or deny their validity. If they are confirmed, the judge may order the veteran to undergo inpatient or outpatient treatment instead of going to jail.
The new law, which takes effect July 1, would only apply in cases of lower-level crimes and to those who were honorably discharged.
“I’m saying it should be applied to (bad conduct and) dishonorably discharged veterans as well,” Brann said.
Brann, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, spoke Wednesday at a meeting of the Kansas Mental Health Coalition.
He said his youngest son, Billy, now 30, served two nine-month tours in Iraq and was in “extreme combat at Fallujah and Ramadi.”
He was given a bad conduct discharge in 2008.
“He and three other Marines smuggled drugs into Iraq,” Brann said. “And when they ran out of drugs, they stole morphine from a corpsman.”
Brann said his son’s actions stemmed in part from being bipolar and having been in combat.
“He was self-medicating,” he said. “He has a lot of PTSD. He’s going through a lot of depression. When he looks in the mirror, he doesn’t like the person he sees.”
Brann said his son continued to use drugs after he left the service. He’s now an inmate at the Sedgwick County Jail.
“Ever since he left the Marine Corps, he’s been in and out of trouble with law enforcement,” Brann said, noting that his son is scheduled to be released on probation June 8.
He said the new law discriminates against mentally ill veterans whose aberrant behaviors led to bad conduct or dishonorable discharges.
“The law says the judge can divert you if you’ve been in combat and if you have PSTD, but only if you’re honorably discharged,” Brann said. “I’m saying it shouldn’t matter. My son was in some of the worst combat in Iraq, my son has PTSD, my son has a mental illness."
Brann said he has discussed his proposal with several legislators from Johnson County. Most, he said, appeared supportive.
Brann said he is also asking legislators to require the state’s prisons and county jails to make mental health counseling and medication available to all inmates known to be mentally ill and upon release to connect them with mental health services in their communities.
“I know we can't make people go to counseling or take their medications,” he said. “But those services need to be there and a lot of times they’re not.”
Jeremy Barclay, a spokesperson for the Kansas Department of Corrections, said it was not immediately clear how Brann’s proposal might affect the agency’s operations.
“The devil’s always in the details,” Barclay said. “We’re always supportive of recommendations for helping the mentally ill and, for that matter, veterans. It sounds like we’re already doing a lot of what he’s proposing. I’d have to see the bill before I could say much about it.”
During the coalition meeting, Gina Meier-Hummel, commissioner of community services and programs at the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, said the agency plans to launch a public awareness campaign on mental illness issues in September.
Dave Ranney is senior writer/editor with KHI News Service, an editorially independent reporting program of the Kansas Health Institute.