News Research

November 7, 2014 at 1:02 pm

‘I Didn’t Have to Go into the Military to Get Shot At’

By Lori Bauer

“I didn’t have to go into the military to get shot at,” says Chris Derr, a veteran telling his story to help other veterans.

Derr took a photograph of the empty lot where his childhood home used to sit in the Youngstown area with a disposable camera provided by Dr. Ursula Castellano, Associate Professor of Sociology at Ohio University.

“The street where I grew up as a child has a big hole in it where my house and the houses next to me used to be.”

His voice is heavy with the memory.

“I grew up around violence. This is before I ever went to the military,” he says.

That’s a common theme among the veterans whom Castellano is working with at the Veterans Treatment Court in a once-thriving steel town in northeastern Ohio.

Fourteen of them are armed with disposable cameras. Their photographs give an intimate look at men who served their country—and ended up in the criminal justice system.

“One the most surprising things: The majority of my participants are non-combat vets, but they way in which they talk about what led them to enlist … a lot of them say, ‘I’ve done combat on the street. I’ve done battle.’” she says. “Their photos are revealing significant connections between veterans’ criminal histories, combat experiences in domestic urban warfare, and pre-service PTSD. It’s one of my findings that’s pretty consistent in the way veterans talk about their lives.”

‘Die in the Street or Die with Honor’

For many, enlisting in the military was one of the few options they had for bettering their lives.

“Die in the street or die with honor” is a common theme, she says. Darren, a Navy veteran, told her, “For me, it was prison, death or the military.”

In her photography project with Veterans Court participants, Castellano asks veterans to tell their stories by giving them disposable cameras. They each created a photo album called “My Life in the Veterans Court” by taking pictures of people, places, and things that reflected their involvement with the court program.

“The men’s experiences in the criminal justice system were the initial focal point of the camera’s lens, but the collection of still images told a much larger story about their lives before, during, and after their military tour of duty. The pictures and the interviews revealed that the words Veteran, Warrior and POW were part of their lived experiences in and out of the armed services,” Castellano says.

Veterans also used the camera to tell their stories about why they joined. Another veteran, Phoenix, explained to Castellano: “I was always in trouble. I was a street kid. I was kind of pushed in the direction of going into the military. [Go] ‘straighten up your life, kid. Get some discipline. Get some college money.’ I was only 17 when I enlisted.”

Castellano has been working with the criminal justice system for most of her career. She worked in education and family visiting services at San Quentin prison for eight years. She worked at the San Francisco County Jails and Criminal Courts researching pretrial release programs. Since coming to Ohio, she’s studied four mental health courts. “Most of my research focuses on how court actors make decisions. I was looking for an innovative way to understand why participants choose to plead into the (veterans) court and how they experience judge-mandated treatment.”

It was a Youngstown mental health counselor who suggested, “Hey, we have a veteran’s court. Come check us out.”‘ The Veterans Treatment Court is located in the Youngstown Municipal Court. Veterans can apply to participate in the treatment court who have been charged with a nonviolent misdemeanor offense and who also have a clinical diagnosis of substance dependence, a mental health disease, traumatic brain injury or a co-occurring disorder.

‘Their Stories Are Important to All of Us’

The photographs that the veterans bring to Castellano aren’t pictures. They are emotions.

And for Castellano, they are also data.

“What I’ve found working with this population for many years is that traditional kinds of interviewing don’t yield the rich responses that you would expect,” she says.

But the photos work well for veterans looking for an opportunity to tell their stories on their own terms.

“I ask them to take me through each photo and give each one a title. The stories behind the photos have really revealed so much about their lives. These men are amazing, the things they have achieved in spite of tremendous hardships. In addition to their military service, they are accomplished musicians and athletes; they went to college. They go back to their old neighborhood and talk about stories from childhood and influences to go into the military.… They take photos that serve as a metaphor for how they feel emotionally. Richard, another veteran, tested positive for drugs and the judge sentenced him to house arrest. He took a picture of his ankle bracelet and talked about his struggles with addiction after returning from Vietnam.”

“I am honored to work with veterans; I’ve learned so much from them because they are willing to share their lives. We should be grateful. Their stories are important to all of us,” Castellano says.

Castellano hopes the photos—and a video project—also server a broader purpose.

An estimated 10 percent of people involved in the criminal justice system are military veterans.

The Veterans Court photography team

The Veterans Court photography team: Chris Derr, Dan Trout (videographer), Ursula Castellano, and Al Nelis (research assistant)

The Resources That Help Them Recover

The trailer clip shown above is part of a longer video where Chris Derr talks about his experiences in the Veterans Treatment Court. He shares his military experiences, how he became involved in the criminal justice system, and the resources that helped them to recover from PTSD, drugs and alcohol. The longer video will be developed into a peer-to-peer support tool for use in therapeutic and clinical settings. Castellano and her team also are producing a short video that will be distributed widely to help promote veterans courts.

To create the videos, Castellano is working with a panel of external reviewers, including several Ohio judges.

A lot of the veterans she has interviewed feel positive about the veterans court. “They like they judge. For some it has been helpful in addressing substance abuse and connecting them to the VA. So veterans court is instrumental in helping them get access to things they need.” But it doesn’t work for everyone, and some are sent back to regular court.

Derr graduated from veterans court. He is working fulltime and involved with several community outreach organizations.

He said, “I’ve renewed my spirit, and Veterans Court was a catalyst and basically the inspiration for me to change my life. I didn’t go there by choice. But it was a blessing in disguise because it led me to people that I would never have known, I would never have accepted, and letting people touch me, and affect me, and guide me.”

Chris taking a photo of Veterans Court

Chris Derr taking a photo of flags outside the local Amvets in Struthers, OH.

2 Comments

  1. Kristen Bower says:

    Very touching and inspirational.

  2. An interesting approach that seems to be getting great results. Chris’ story has lessons for all of us.

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