The Veterans Justice Commission says about 180,000 military veterans are serving time in jail or prison and the group wants to change that.
On Wednesday, the group hosted a forum to shed light on veterans' struggles and inspire solutions.
"My knee-jerk reaction to most instances was extreme violence," former Army Staff Sgt. Sean McGerald said, describing his struggles as a civilian.
McGerald and others who spoke say they served their country but came back wounded in ways that went undetected. Severa; shared about their post-service struggles with the newly-formed Veteran’s Justice Commission. The 15-member panel includes two former defense secretaries, Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel.
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"We’ve got real inequities in our system and we can do so much more to help these men and women who give 20, 25, 30 years of their life to this country," Hagel said.
Now Senator Hagel says the group is meeting in San Diego because of the successful efforts here to help military vets.
It’s no coincidence the meeting was hosted at the headquarters for Support The Enlisted Project, or STEP.
STEP provides food, clothes, baby formula, diapers and whatever struggling enlisted members might need. It includes financial counseling and grant money to get back on their feet.
McGerald, a 17-year veteran, said he was addicted to drugs, went to jail twice and acted out violently as a civilian.
“We need to do something about addressing mental health for service members that doesn’t stigmatize it, that normalizes us seeking mental health," he said.
A Former Airborne Ranger we're calling Daniel spoke about becoming estranged from his family upon his return from Afghanistan.
"Coming out of a military culture environment and then not being able to, not just emotionally, but mentally and physically connect and communicate with my family because it’s hard. It’s hard for them to understand," Daniel said.
Navy veteran Sandy Duchac suffers from PTSD. She says she was sexually violated twice during her service.
Duchac’s support is her Great Dane service dog JB, short for “Just Big.” Her mission now is to counsel other victims and their aggressors.
"Until we stop it in the ranks, anything you are doing outside of the military is never going to change," Duchac said. "We’re always going to have people self-medicating, we’re always going to have people self-sabotaging."
Armed with the purpose of providing at-risk vets the support they need, the commission is charged with making recommendations to the courts, police, Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense.
Wednesday was the group’s first formal meeting. They are not only hearing from local veterans but sharing statistical research that also illustrates the problem. They have been in town for the last four days. The Justice Commission plans to meet in several communities where there are large military populations.
The former Defense Secretary says often times veterans are reluctant to seek help because it may be seen as a weakness. This is one of the many challenges support groups have reaching those in need.