The New Jersey Reentry Corporation held their annual conference at St. Peter’s University today with a focus on veteran trauma this time around.
“We saw that eight percent of prisoners are veterans and disproportionately combat veterans. Veterans more than any cohort are suffering from suicide and mental health challenges,” said NJRC Executive Director Jim McGreevey, a former governor.
“It was a natural course of action given the population that we serve,” he explained regarding the conference focusing on veteran trauma given the NJRC’s mission of helping felons.
NJRC Board member Larry Lustberg moderated a panel on the government’s response to homeless veterans, noting noted that besides those who are honorably discharged, veterans often don’t get benefits due to trauma they experienced while serving.
Specifically, Lustberg said 10.2 million veterans don’t receive medical benefits and those who are often dishonorably discharged are more likely to commit suicide. In addition, eight percent of New Jersey prisoners are veterans.
“Many of our veterans were being discharged related to their trauma related to their service,” U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-11), a Navy veteran, said.
She also said she is working with U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) on a bill that would allow such veterans to be eligible for mental health treatment.
“We have to make sure we treat the whole of the individual,” New Jersey Department of Corrections Acting Commissioner Victoria Koons added.
“There’s a gap in services provided to veterans. What can be done in New Jersey to fill those gaps?” Lustberg asked.
State Senator Sandra Cunningham (D-31), referred to by Lustberg as “the Godmother of the NJRC,” said many veterans are young, also noting former state Senator Ray Lesniak had sponsored a bill for prisoners to earn their way out of jail.
“Unfortunately, the pandemic got in the way, and nothing has happened with it since. We need immediately to come up with pieces of legislation. They have a right to be treated with respect and get the same sort of benefits available.”
State Senator Jean Stanfield (R-8) said she is working with Senator Joe Cryan (D-20) to create a neutral discharge status to receive state benefits and resources.
“I don’t believe it would have moved forward if you hadn’t brought it to our attention,” she indicated.
Stanfield explained she is sponsoring a bill that acknowledges children of veterans in schools because it’s more likely that one of their parents has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which adversely affects them.
“What do you think New Jersey should be doing better for these amazing veterans?,” Lustberg asked Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-33), a Marine veteran.
He cited the $1 million he had appropriated to help veterans with bad discharges as one example.
“It fits nearly into what they’ve been doing for the broader reentry community. Those veterans deserve our help on their pathway to reentry,” Mukherji said.
He noted they are making bipartisan progress on the bill in Trenton, as opposed to the typical logjam in Washington, D.C.
Furthermore, Mukherji stated a quarter of homeless veterans had “bad paper” discharges, as well as that they are two to three times more likely to commit suicide than regular veterans.
“[Those veterans] are facing the same adverse consequences of bad paper as if you were reentering from custody: There’s no expungement in the military,” Mukherji said.
NJRC Veteran’s Task Force Chair Will Sheehan noted that New York, California, and Connecticut had similar bills to help veterans access state services.