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Two days later Perkins called his psychologist in a panic. He went to the VA's emergency room, reporting that he was "stressed out drinking and gambling." He remained in the psychology ward for two days. Two weeks later he began receiving gambling counseling, which helped. "It really opened my eyes," he says now.
In September he pleaded guilty to all federal charges, and the court scheduled his sentencing hearing for January.
Federal prosecutor Steven D. Weinhoeft acknowledged Perkins' military valor and his PTSD. But as a correctional officer, he argued, the defendant was well aware he was committing a crime. Perkins' gambling binges were "utterly selfish," Weinhoeft asserted.
"[Y]ou look at what he's done," the assistant U.S. attorney told the judge. "He's thrown away his career. He has significantly damaged the institution that he worked for. He's compromised the integrity of the profession that he was involved with."
Speaking on Perkins' behalf, defense attorney Daniel F. Goggin zeroed in on his client's combat-induced transformation.
"[Y]ou take these kids in at a young age to send them to battle. You have to break them down and train them to kill people, because you can't take a normal person who's lived a normal life and tell them to go kill somebody," Goggin argued.
When soldiers come home, Goggin added, "They don't know how to calm down. They were in that situation, thinking, I'm going to die any second, for a couple years. So they just start doing classical behavior. They beat their partners, start drinking, they start gambling. Mr. Perkins' case was gambling, chronic gambling."
Goggin closed by noting that if his client were to be sentenced to 30 months — the minimum prescribed by federal guidelines — his veteran's benefits would expire, making him ineligible for VA counseling upon his release.
Given the chance to speak, Perkins was brief. "I just want to, first and foremost, say — just apologize to my family for putting them through all this. And just really ashamed of myself, my actions for — the person I am today, just completely different from the person I used to be, and I just want to get the help that I need so I can be the person I was. That's all."
Before issuing his ruling, U.S. District Judge Michael J. Reagan commended Perkins on his military service and acknowledged his PTSD and gambling addiction. But smuggling contraband into prison, be it tobacco or illegal drugs, is serious business, the judge declared.
"Anything that upsets the delicate balance of power between the guards and the inmates or the inmates and other inmates can turn calm into chaos," Reagan said before sentencing Perkins to 30 months. He chose the low end of the recommended range, the judge explained, in light of Perkins' military service. He also ordered the defendant to steer clear of casinos for three years after his release.
Khalat Alama pleaded guilty to conspiracy to bribe a federal official and bribery of a federal official. An additional 30 months was tacked onto his prison term.
Before his client was sentenced, Daniel F. Goggin gambled on a legal long shot: He requested that the court reassign Perkins' case to a so-called veterans treatment court, hoping that Judge Reagan might apply to the federal level a trend that in recent years has gained significant traction at the state level.
Many veterans who suffer from combat-related mental illness land in the legal system as first offenders. The vet court concept is analogous to drug court, offering defendants a second chance by reducing prison terms or bypassing convictions altogether if the accused agrees to participate in individualized, VA-run treatment programs and check in regularly with the court. The setup is doubly attractive to politicians, in that it provides positive press fodder and saves taxpayers money.
Associate Judge Robert Russell of Buffalo, N.Y., opened the first such court in 2008 after seeing veterans who came through his drug court interact positively with one another. In the three years beginning in 2009, the number of vet courts in the United States swelled from four to 92, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, a nonprofit agency based in Alexandria, Va.
The movement has been slow to gain a foothold at the federal level, but that tide has begun to turn.
"The idea is starting to percolate," says Magistrate Judge Paul M. Warner of the District of Utah, who instituted the nation's first federal vet court in 2010. Warner spent six years in the Navy before joining the Army National Guard's Judge Advocate General's Corps, retiring as a colonel. He says he relies on district judges to refer appropriate cases to him.
"The defendants respect that I'm an Army colonel a lot more than the fact I'm wearing a black robe," he says.