Police with military background help struggling veterans

CINCINNATI -- The man was armed with a shotgun. The family member who called police said he was a combat veteran and suicidal. 

The situation could have ended badly, but Sgt. David Corlett said police were able to talk the man into putting the weapon down and then brought him to the Veterans Affairs hospital to get help.

Corlett works for the Cincinnati Police Department, but he's also an Army veteran. He came up with the idea to use his status as a vet to change the interaction when officers come across a veteran in distress.

"Our goal was to educate law enforcement and first responders on what PTSD looks like and how to deal with it," he said. 

Cincinnati police have handled so many calls with veterans, they've actually lost track. But more than 30 percent of Cincinnati officers are also veterans, according to Corlett.

While dealing with veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, being able to tell them he served in Desert Storm makes it easier to have a conversation "and hopefully get to the point they're willing to accept the help I can offer," Corlett said.

Homicide Detective Kelly Best is also one of officers who make up the Military Liaison Group. She served in the Marine Corps from 1993 to 2007.

"They'll often say, 'I'm a Marine,'" Best said. "'Well, act like a Marine, because I'm a Marine' and I'll ask them their rank and they'll say lance corporal or corporal. I'll say, 'Then you need to address me as a staff sergeant,' and they stand right up and say, 'Yes, staff sergeant,' and it's like waving a magic wand."

When law enforcement is involved, it means veterans are usually struggling, according to Ron Michaelson, the veterans justice outreach specialist with the Cincinnati VA. 

"The goal is to get these folks into the VA system of care and get them connected before it reaches a crisis point, before any criminal charges are involved, before they have to be jailed potentially," he said.

Michaelson bridges the gap between what officers come across and the help veterans need. That means he can help them access medical and mental health care, addiction services or other things to help with whatever the veterans are dealing with. 

Corlett's idea for officers to wear pins representing the military branch each served has also turned into conversation starters and, in some cases, diffusers in tense situations.

"It starts an instant conversation," he said.

In Green Township, Air Force veteran and police Patrolman Scott Celender is among six veterans using their past experience to get other vets help. 

"There's a tab in our reporting system now that says 'veteran assistance referral,'" he said. "They say they just appreciated the fact that I called them a day or so later and said, 'Hey, I heard you had something happen. Is there anything I can do for you?'"

Michaelson said that's a sign the system has become more responsive.

"We've got an eye on things now, whereas before these men and women may have been falling through the cracks," he said. 

In one case, Celender said a veteran didn't even realize he qualified for services at the VA Medical Center. He helped the vet get a copy of his military service record and now the man is getting the help he needs.

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