After a third of veterans report being arrested, a new effort to understand why

After nearly a decade in the Marine Corps, Ron Self was able to knot a rope strong enough to tow military vehicles through combat zones in Africa. But years later, sitting in a jail cell, he couldn't get the sheets he'd tied together to hold up.
"When I tried to hang myself and the rope broke and I was on my knees, I immediately realized that this isn't — it wasn't — the solution," he told ABC News.
After more than a decade incarcerated over a freeway shooting, Self said he's still processing the anger and shame at his arrest.
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He's not alone: ​​A third of veterans say they've been arrested, according to a new report from the Council on Criminal Justice, citing a 2017 study focusing on military service and crime.
"When you break up and you're no longer a part of something bigger than anything you've ever been in your entire life — namely military service — and you no longer have that camaraderie, it can take a while, definitely, a dark twist." "Self said.
PHOTO: Ron Self is pictured in uniform while serving in the Marine Corps in an undated photo. (Courtesy of Ron Self)
That's what happened to him, he said: Self was a distinguished Marine, honored for his bravery in a helicopter crash in South Korea when he was discharged on medical parole in the '90s. But he feels increasingly unstable and alienated from civilian life, he said. Which he believes is partly why he agreed to being a hit man and trying to take someone's life on the way to work.
MORE: Veterans help fellow vets struggling to adjust to civilian life
"I was lying in the back of a truck in a sniper hole built into that truck," Self recalled of the 1994 incident in which he armed himself with a sniper rifle on the freeway. "I looked at him [the victim] through the telescope crosshairs on the rifle and I remember thinking how easy it would be to just do that and then take the exit and walk."
Instead, Self said he aimed at the lower-right corner of the car's windshield and fired two shots, several seconds apart, in what he says was an attempt not to take the man's life.
"My intention was to make it public so that if that failed, [the person trying to kill him] couldn't do it to someone else," Self said.
He can still remember the reaction of a woman in a nearby car.
"The fear on her face from the windshield exploding and the gunshots - I've only seen that fear in combat before," he said. "The difference was that we were there to stop the people who were causing it, and in that moment it was me ... I can't even articulate how that hit me psychologically."
The driver behind the shot through windshield was injured but survived. Self was later arrested on charges of conspiracy to murder, attempted murder and firing a gun within city limits.
"The fact that I did what I did, I think on a subconscious level, I distanced myself from society because I felt like I didn't belong in society," he said.
Self was convicted and initially sentenced to 32 years of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole.
After trying to kill himself while incarcerated, he decided he couldn't allow other ex-servicemen to experience the same agony.
MORE: This nonprofit organization helps family members and friends of soldiers who die by suicide cope with the loss
"The solution would be a program that would help other veterans not make the bad decisions I made," he said.
While in prison, Self created a peer-to-peer mentoring program, Veterans Healing Veterans from the Inside Out, to help other veterans deal with incarceration, past trauma and suicidal thoughts.
He later successfully argued in a parole hearing that he was trying not to take anyone's life on the freeway and was released from prison in 2017 after serving 23 years.
PHOTO: Ron Self is pictured in an undated photo. (Courtesy of Ron Self)
The former Marine recently joined the Council on Criminal Justice as a founding member of the Veterans Justice Commission, which was launched last month.
Self will be working with two former defense secretaries, Chuck Hagel and Leon Panetta, as part of a 15-member panel studying veterans' arrest rates. The biennial commission will also make policy recommendations to better support veterans.
"There was injustice suffered here," Hagel told ABC, adding, "Nobody paid any attention."
He believes the council "provides a strength, a position, a structure in which to work and where we can work to attract some of the best minds in the country on this issue."
"We have to do our job better," he said of the Society's support for veterans returning from the war. "And it's not good enough to just say, well, we can do more. Hopefully with this commission we can be concrete.”
The commission recognizes more than 181,500 veterans in jails or jails in the US, citing the latest census estimated by the Department of Justice in 2011-2012. According to the same data, 8% of people incarcerated in local, state and federal prisons in the US are veterans.
The majority of incarcerated veterans are convicted of violent crimes, and nearly twice as many veterans are serving life sentences as their non-veteran counterparts, according to the commission's report, citing a 2016 DOJ survey.
The commission defined unique risk factors in war returnees that make them more likely to engage in criminal activities. These factors include post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, increased mental health problems, more frequent substance abuse, and financial insecurity.
Federal, state, and local programs have been established to help incarcerated veterans. The Veterans Justice Outreach Program was created by the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2009 to better identify incarcerated veterans and connect them to appropriate resources. While the U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs cites 138,000 veterans who served this program over a four-year period, the commission also acknowledges that military personnel generally do not understand the support systems available to them both before and after their arrest stand.
When Self was processed through his medical discharge after his military service, he said he was not made aware of all the resources available to him.
"I had no idea I had any potential for service-related benefits or actual financial benefit," he said. "I had no idea about any of this."
"I don't want to blame the military," Self continued. "And I'm not. And I'm not playing the victim. I own up to a very bad decision I made and I never came to terms with it."
MORE: Can the VA follow through on its 'monumental' bid to end veterans' homelessness?
After years in the military, the Marine Corps had become his family, where he said he found "people who basically chewed the same dirt, spat the same buds."
The chronic pain he endured that caused his eventual medical discharge from the Marines, he now says, was more bearable abroad because of his relationships with his comrades. "To be exempt from that - it was an absolute loss of identity."
"It's an inappropriate cry for help," Self said of military personnel who commit crimes.
He recognizes his unique position as a formerly incarcerated veteran charged with answering those cries.
“Anyone who raised their hand in service was trusted to carry a weapon in defense of this country. I violated that trust by doing what I did," he said of his shooting. "I may never be able to regain that level of trust. I can definitely spend the rest of my life trying.”
Self believes the commission will be an important next step in examining the larger problem and ensuring incarcerated veterans know they are not alone or beyond correction and rehabilitation.
“We all have the capacity for salvation. We all have the ability to change how we shape and view our past," Self said of other service members who may have been in a position similar to his. "If we can redefine how that drives us for the rest of our lives, it could be a lot more helpful to all the people leaving the military and the communities we fought for."
ABC News' Matt Seyler contributed to this report.
After a third of veterans reported their arrest, a new attempt to understand why appeared originally on abcnews.go.com

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