Local "Veteran of the Year" brings change to justice system

Courtesy of Duncan MacVicar
MacVicar, right, in Vietnam.

When veterans break the law in the U.S., they enter a court system that may not understand some of their specialized problems – or the resources that exist, if activated, to support them.

Longtime Los Altos resident Duncan MacVicar witnessed the situation up close 10 years ago, in a case that became a calling.

A young man he knew in Los Altos and personally recruited for the U.S. Military Academy, MacVicar’s alma mater, returned home from foreign tours of duty addicted to painkillers. The veteran, Sargent Binkley, committed armed robbery in Mountain View to acquire more drugs, and his trial became a test case for weighing mental illness, treatment options and criminal sanctions.

Since then, MacVicar has made a cause out of raising awareness about service-related mental health issues and the resources that exist to support veterans, not just with legal sanctions and treatment, but also wrap-around services addressing homelessness, employment and other needs.

In June he was named the California State Assembly’s “Veteran of the Year” for District 24, which includes Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Mountain View.

“A veteran of the Vietnam War, Duncan has continued to serve his country as a civilian, working to educate others on the effects of post-traumatic stress and other military service-related mental health issues,” Assemblyman Marc Berman wrote in an email. “His work to create Veterans Treatment Courts both emphasizes the need for treatment for traumatized veterans and honors the service and sacrifice these veterans have made for all of us.”

MacVicar missed the luncheon honoring him and other “Veterans of the Year” held recently in Sacramento. He was recovering from surgery for a rare melanoma, identified through a routine physical appointment in the spring. As he underwent cancer treatment, MacVicar said many people have been reminding him of the motto of his West Point class: “’65 – Strength and Drive.”

From Saigon to Silicon Valley

MacVicar graduated from West Point the same month President Lyndon B. Johnson announced that a million American troops would be heading to Vietnam. MacVicar didn’t end up there until 1967, when he deployed as a captain in the Corps of Engineers. Stationed north of Saigon, he swept for mines, built new roads and directed engineering tasks in support of frontline fighters. Returning to Vietnam decades later, he met some of the people who lived in that area – on both sides of the conflict – and also bear the memories of war.

After returning from Vietnam, MacVicar worked at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and a variety of high-tech companies around Silicon Valley. He’s open about leaving the service with his own share of post-traumatic stress, for which he underwent therapy. Talking openly about both mental suffering and the power of treatment is part of his advocacy. When he attended Binkley’s trial, he was disturbed to see the district attorney handling the case dismiss service-related mental health problems as irrelevant to the case.

“I decided the law wasn’t good enough, so I was going to change it,” MacVicar said.

A jury found Binkley not guilty by reason of insanity, and instead of serving a prison sentence of 12 years – the minimum penalty he faced – he was diverted to a medical facility. Binkley benefited from many supporters, including MacVicar, who spoke out about veterans’ needs and what was possible within the law. MacVicar wanted to extend that support to every service man or woman who needed it.

From statehouse to courtroom

As with other treatment courts in California, the idea behind diverting veterans into 18 months of supervised treatment rather than prison aims to reduce future crime and extend care to traumatized veterans.

“The results are astounding, with recidivism below 15 percent – when overall in California, it is 70 percent for felonies,” MacVicar said.

MacVicar drafted a bill, delivered it into the hands of the right people in Sacramento and ultimately saw Assembly Bill 674 passed unanimously in 2010. It amended California’s penal code to expand the alternative sentencing options available to veterans with mental health issues. A subsequent bill and resolution continued that work in 2012 and 2013, and two more pieces of legislation are in the works.

He expanded that advocacy as co-founder of the California Veterans Legal Task Force, for which he traveled the state helping establish veterans’ treatment courts and conducting legal assistance clinics. The state is able to defer jail sentences for qualifying veterans who pursue a course of treatment. Judges who agree to run the courts are educated in the specific mental health issues and related substance abuse problems particular to the veteran community, ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to traumatic brain injury and military sexual trauma. The courts are also connected to organizations such as the Veterans Health Administration and volunteer service organizations that can assist veterans who find themselves in court.

MacVicar has spent the past eight years driving around the state from county to county, explaining the treatment court process and ensuring buy-in from the many involved agencies.

“The busiest person in the room is the representative from the VA,” he said.

He’s hoping to drive less as more people join the statewide effort to address justice issues affecting veterans. He’s still writing new legislation, and testifying to the next big cause – identifying and treating people before they slide into addiction and crime.

MacVicar believes that screening for military members returning from combat and leaving the service must be improved to identify individuals who need support before they wind up in court. Binkley left the service addicted to painkillers first prescribed for a hip injury while stationed in Bosnia. Many veterans abuse alcohol and end up in court on DUI, domestic violence or assault charges. Others are charged with crimes related to homelessness, such as breaking and entering.

MacVicar recommends “War Torn,” a 2010 documentary on the history of post-traumatic stress disorder as a place to learn more about how understanding of service-related mental health issues has evolved. When he sought help decades ago, post-traumatic stress had neither a name nor a conceptual diagnosis. In the past decade, it has come into sharper relief, but many counties in California still do not have the services related to a veterans treatment court. Binkley died of cardiac arrest in 2012 after successfully completing the treatment program.

“He was putting his life back together,” MacVicar said, but “he had really harmed himself a lot with drugs over the years.”

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