OKLAHOMA CITY – Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond, has filed legislation to ensure Oklahoma’s approximately 290,000 veterans get their rightful military benefits, including those earned through combat, from the federal Department of Veterans Affairs (USDVA). He’s also authored a measure to create a special court diversion program for veterans in trouble with the law who are suffering from emotional, mental and/or physical trauma as a result of their military service.
Senate Bill 547 would require the state attorney general to take legal action against the USDVA on behalf of individual veterans and their dependents, who have been wrongly denied their federal benefits, most of which were earned in foreign wars.
“When you enlist in the military, you sign a contract to earn certain benefits in exchange for your service and sacrifice,” Pugh said. “It’s appalling after everything these brave men and women go through that the federal government would deny them their rightfully earned benefits – yet we see it every day. Countless veterans are struggling financially, are homeless, or have untreated physical and mental conditions because they’ve been denied their federal VA benefits. The system has let them down, but our state can step up, honor, and support these heroes by providing them with Oklahoma’s legal backing to get them their rightful federal benefits.”
The bill would also provide recourse for wronged veterans by demanding the USDVA not only pay their rightfully earned VA benefits, but also all back payments, along with interest.
“It’s easy to blame clerical errors when veterans are denied access to federal benefits and programs, but these patriots upheld their bargain with the U.S. government through their dedicated service, and we’re going to make sure they get every penny plus interest owed to them,” Pugh said. “We’re not letting the VA off the hook for this horrible wrong that has been done to Oklahoma’s courageous sons and daughters.”
SB 545, the Oklahoma Veterans’ Treatment Act, would authorize Oklahoma municipal and district courts to establish Veterans’ Treatment Programs that would utilize specially trained court personnel to expedite a case and explore alternatives to incarceration for veterans or service members charged with criminal offenses who need treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), mental health issues, or substance abuse treatment. The program would be open to any nonviolent offender not charged or convicted of an 85% Crime in the previous decade or who had not participated or been discharged from a Veterans’ Treatment Program in the last three years.
Eligibility and program entry would be determined by the program team or coordinator and approved by the district attorney. Cases could be transferred between counties in order to find one with a Veterans’ Treatment Program. An offender would agree to waive their right to a speedy trial and a preliminary hearing. After being admitted into the program, any bail or undertaking on behalf of the defendant would be exonerated. If an offender was terminated from the program or voluntarily withdrew, they would face the previous penalty set forth in their case. Upon successful completion of the program, the criminal case would be dismissed if it was a first felony offense. If there were prior felony convictions, the DA could dismiss the case or offer a reduction to a misdemeanor, or a deferred or suspended sentence for those who completed the program. Defendants could not participate more than three years.
“Many war veterans experience unimaginable traumas and debilitating injuries that can have a devastating impact on their mental and physical health when they return home. This often leads to alcohol or drug addiction, which can then cause employment problems, run-ins with the law, and even homelessness,” Pugh said. “When these heroes find themselves on the wrong side of the law, they need intervention and healing, not jail time. This program would be similar to the highly successful drug courts that divert those with drug addictions into a program that helps them get clean and become productive members of society again. I want our veterans to get the help they need to become whole again, so they can be the best versions of themselves.”
The Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (DMHSAS), the USDVA, or other community-based programs and agencies would assist in creating the individual programs and providing services, as needed. Funding would be provided by the DMHSAS through funds budgeted for alternative courts, substance abuse treatment, or mental health treatment, ODVA, grants and any other private or public monies.
The measures can be considered once the Legislature convenes on Feb. 6.
For more information, contact: Sen. Pugh: (405) 521-5622 or Adam.Pugh@oksenate.gov