BOSTON (CBS) – They are coming home by the thousands – young Americans who have served this country in Afghanistan and Iraq.
And some of them end up being treated like criminals instead of heroes.
More and more veterans say the criminal justice system is doing them wrong.
More than 33,000 men and women have returned home to Massachusetts from Afghanistan and Iraq since 9/11.
But all too often the emotional toll of war comes home with them.
23-year-old Ryan Sparrow of Milton, a decorated war hero, says he was treated like a criminal.
He remembers vividly the two years he spent in Iraq. He saw combat and lost some close buddies.
But he was not prepared for what happened to him when he had a run-in with local police.
“I was a combat veteran who served his country honorably and needed help and the help was not there.”
In 2008, he says he was suffering from post-traumatic stress.
“I wake up. I have nightmares. I have sweats. I am constantly re-thinking events that happened overseas.”
One night Sparrow took a drug overdose and then ran from his house.
His distraught family called police.
He was arrested with drugs in his pocket.
“And the only place they have to send me is Bridgewater, a medium security prison. Shouldn’t I be in a hospital? And shouldn’t I be talking to a doctor?”
Drug free since that incident, Sparrow has spent the past two years shuffling from county jails to drug programs to homeless shelters all ordered by the courts.
‘STICKING ME IN THERE WITH PEDOPHILES’
“They are sticking me in there with pedophiles, people who break into houses, people who rob little old ladies.”
Mike Cunningham works with returning veterans on the South Shore.
So how many Ryan Sparrows are in the criminal justice system?
“Who knows? Probably thousands,” Cunningham said.
He added that law enforcement officers should really be getting special training.
“So they can recognize this and people like Ryan Sparrow will not end up in the criminal justice system and they can get the help they need.”
STATES THAT HAVE IT
Some states like Minnesota, New York and California now have special court systems designed just for troubled vets.
But Massachusetts does not.
Coleman Knee is the Deputy Secretary of Veteran Affairs for Massachusetts.
“Somebody could potentially fall through the system and fall through the cracks.”
Knee likes the idea of Veterans Courts, but says it’s an expensive proposition.
Yet state officials are considering the idea.
“We have a moral responsibility. We really need to step up and address those issues in a pro-active way.”
LAWRENCE AND WORCESTER
Right now a trial program using federal money is underway in courts in Lawrence and Worcester.
Experts are looking out for vets who may need treatment instead of a jail cell.
As for Ryan Sparrow, with help from veterans groups, he is now home and hoping to become a Boston firefighter.
State officials say they will study the results from Worcester and Lawrence and then make a decision on whether to expand the trial federal program using state money.