How a high-risk combat veteran is overcoming suicide attempts
MUSKEGON, MI — When Dana Harvey talks about his experience with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, his warm tone becomes heavy and listless.
His voice drops deeper and sometimes trails off toward the end of a sentence. There is more weight to his words; each is carefully chosen and seems to sit next to him in the room.
Harvey joined the U.S. Navy at 19 because he wanted to do something that would let him hold his head up high. After he got out, the disabled veteran's experiences in war led to the lowest point of his life.
"I had become real depressed and was drinking a lot and kept having nightmares, like war dreams and night shakes," he said. "I had a little bit of survivor's guilt, they tell me. I guess that's true. I ended up attempting suicide. Actually I attempted it a few times. Six times."
The Battle Creek Veterans Affairs Medical Center taught Harvey techniques to deal with his depression, but he didn't stop medicating with alcohol. For the majority of his adult life, he drank to sleep, to stop thinking and cope with trauma.
In the summer of 2014, it caught up with him. Harvey blacked out and became unresponsive while taking care of his daughter Gwendalynn. He was charged with fourth degree child abuse, a misdemeanor charge that could mean up to one year in jail.
Instead, Harvey was given a second chance.
He was selected for Muskegon County's Veterans Treatment court, a specialty court that focuses exclusively on high-risk, high-need combat veterans from any branch of the Armed Forces. Participants must complete a five-phase, 18-month program designed to enforce sobriety, recovery and stability instead of focusing on punishment.
The courts are relatively new but growing quickly in Michigan — Gov. Rick Snyder called the state the "national model" in 2015. The number of veterans courts increased from eight in 2013, the first year after the act was signed, to 23 in 2016.
Michigan has more veterans courts than any other state, however, only 21 of its 83 counties have one. Muskegon County became the home of the eighth court in the state and the first to be officially trained by U.S. Department of Justice in 2014.
Federal certification for a veterans' court opens up the opportunity for state and federal grant money to fund the court, allowing it to stay independent of the county budget. However, grants need to be obtained each year, something that has become more difficult as the number of courts in the state grows.
It always worries us," said Dave Eiling, Muskegon County Director of Veterans Affairs.
Greg Jousma, probation officer for 60th District Court, said Muskegon secured a $65,000 grant from the State Court Administrative Office to operate the court in its first year, a $45,000 grant this year and applied for a $65,000 grant for 2017.
"There's only so much money that is available," Jousma said. "As more (courts are established) that pie slice we get becomes smaller."
A future solution might be to fund the courts through a millage tax or to have regional courts that serve multiple counties, Eiling said. Muskegon's court already works with Oceana, Newaygo and Mecosta counties, which makes it a more competitive choice to receive state money.
"Hopefully people understand that incarceration costs tons of money and you haven't gained anything; they're not being treated," Eiling said. "We get them fixed, we don't just throw them in jail and have them come through those doors again later."
Measure of success
According to a 2015 performance report conducted by the Michigan Supreme Court, 64 percent of participants successfully completed the program last year, while 26 percent failed and 11 percent were discharged for other reasons.
There are 25 veterans currently in Muskegon County's program.
District Court Chief Judge Raymond Kostrzewa presides over Muskegon County's court, which functions like any other courtroom. The courts try to resolve underlying issues that contribute to non-violent offenses as an alternative to incarceration.
"It's a deeper way of looking at the criminal justice problem," Kostrzewa said. "It requires you to examine, on a case-by-case basis, what is the appropriate (way of dealing with a crime). There are different judicial philosophies on what needs to be accomplished by sentencing someone. One of those is punishment. When an individual enters the veteran's treatment court, it's a whole different philosophy than dealing with than other cases."
A violent offender is defined as a person who is currently charged or pleaded guilty to an offense involving the death of or serious bodily injury to a person — whether or not it was in self-defense — or a criminal sexual conduct in any degree.
Participants must also abuse or exhibit a dependence on drugs or alcohol or suffer from a mental illness. Seventy-three percent of veteran graduates across the state had a substance abuse disorder, while 27 percent were diagnosed with a mental illness.
Kostrzewa compares participation in the court to being on "intensive probation." In the first three phases, participants are required to appear in court every two weeks for a review hearing. Between each review hearing, the veteran has weekly contact with a veteran mentor and participates in therapy sessions that could include a 12-step program or PTSD group.
At the end of the program, Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson has the discretion to either reduce or dismiss their charges.
Program graduates averaged 372 consecutive days of sobriety.
Finding veterans employment is a secondary goal of most programs. About a third of graduates were unemployed when they entered the court, while only 16 percent were unemployed after graduating.
Healing deep scars
Suicide has killed more American veterans than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Veterans often return from combat tours accustomed to violence and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, Eiling said. A soldier serving multiple combat tours has become more common than it was in previous generations, increasing the risk of mental illness.
"We all went through war, some in different ways than others," Harvey said. "You can hear all the stories — watch movies, play video games or read books — but it's like trying to explain a color you've never seen. The court (and other veterans) helped me get on my feet and deal with the stress, depression and anger. I didn't realize I was angry or how angry I was. Or how sad."
As an avionics technician, Harvey was attached to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron Four, also known as the Black Knights — an anti-submarine and rescue unit deployed aboard aircraft carriers.
He remembers flipping through television channels in his San Diego barracks, finding the same image of planes flying into the World Trade Center on each station. Less than two months after 9/11, he was deployed to the Persian Gulf.
One of the highlights of his service was being able to work with his older brother, a communications technician on Seal Team Three. When they were deployed to the Middle East, Harvey worked closely with special forces, dropping and recovering soldiers on missions.
He was also in Yemen when the Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Cole was bombed while it was harbored and being refueled. This event killed 17 American sailors and injured 39, making it the deadliest attack against a U.S. Naval vessel since 1987.
Experiences like that returned with him to the United States in 2002. They were carried to Muskegon when Harvey moved back to take care of his mother and raise a daughter in 2009.
"I didn't see that I deserved to be happy," he said. "I honestly thought (my daughter) would be better off without me because I was that messed up."
Harvey stared at the floor in silence for 10 seconds when asked why he didn't believe himself deserving of happiness.
"People are dead because of me," he said slowly. "(There are) a lot of reasons. You always carry that. The effects of it can lessen with time, but it's not something you forget. It's not something you have to think about every waking moment for the rest of your life, but it stays with you."
Harvey said Muskegon veterans are blessed to have the support of the veterans treatment court. His mentor is Dan Rabidoux, the first participant and graduate of the county's court.
Rabidoux attempted suicide in his home and was charged with a felony for discharging a shotgun in a dwelling while under the influence of alcohol. He could have spent five years in prison for trying to kill himself.
The first eight participants tried to commit suicide in 2013. One died in a car crash unrelated to substance abuse, but the rest are still alive today.
Hesitant at first, Rabidoux didn't buy into the program immediately. He planned to play the game and get through it as fast as he could.
"Four or five months of that went by and pretty soon — I don't know what it was — something clicked in me and I started caring," he said. "Once you start caring, you get involved. When you help someone else it helps you. I need the court, it's about helping other people."
Rabidoux's charge was cleared from his record.
Harvey has been sober for six months and completed the first two phases of the program after about a year. He uses a breathalyzer twice a day, a step forward from when he was required to wear an alcohol-monitoring ankle bracelet.
Progress reduces the requirements on the participant but increases the expectation that they will follow the rules. Veterans often relapse, especially early on, Kostrzewa said, in which case they are punished based on how difficult the requirement is to achieve.
Harvey still has a long way to go but the statistics are on his side.
Participants active in a program for at least one year had a greater chance of success, graduating at a rate of 86 percent. Veterans who graduated averaged at least 16 months in a program.
"Once you start actually listening and doing the things they tell you to do and move forward, not only do your circumstances change, you change and the things around you change," Harvey said. "These guys show love. All they ask for in return is that you use it properly to make your life better."
Ultimately, Kostrzewa said the most important mission of the court is to help the participant reclaim their pride. Taking an oath to protect the constitution and the American people deserves an incredible amount of respect, he said, and even damaged veterans should feel like valued members of the community.
"Many times I see the participants come in for the first time and their head is low and their shoulders are slumped," Kostrzewa said. "They are ashamed of their behavior and communicate that they don't have value. By the end of the program, you now have a person who has progressed through the healing process that puts them in the position of having a sense of belonging to a group again."
When Dana Harvey talks about his daughter, his tone becomes more enthusiastic. He sits up straighter, moves his hands as he speaks. The walls in his home are bare, save two photos of Gwendalynn.
"I can help people, I can work toward being a good dad," he said. "My little girl loves the hell out of me. She just turned 8. To a little girl, daddy is her superhero. All these little things add up to her happiness, which summarily makes me happy. My daughter forgave me. She understands that her father was sick and pretty depressed."
Harvey joined the U.S. Navy as a 19-year-old because he wanted to do something that would let him hold his head up high. With the support of his fellow servicemen and the Veteran's Treatment Court, he is learning to stop his experiences in the service from holding him down.
Malachi Barrett covers community news for MLive Muskegon Chronicle. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PolarBarrett or on Facebook.