Roy Bowman will never forget what happened in the jungles of Vietnam.
Conversely, he likely won't ever remember what happened the night he got in a bar fight in Lawton, and a man he was fighting ended up dead.
Bowman has been in prison for 36 years for a second-degree murder conviction.
Before he was arrested, Bowman was drinking excessively, trying to fight off the mental health issues he faced after the Vietnam War.
“This may sound crazy, but I do thank God that I was incarcerated because it gave me a chance to seek help and get help,” Bowman said.
Veterans represent about 10 percent of the population in the Oklahoma Department of Corrections prison facilities. An estimated 1,500 veterans are incarcerated in correctional centers in Oklahoma, according to DOC data.
About 3,000 Oklahoma National Guard soldiers returned from Afghanistan earlier this year.
State military leaders and mental health professionals have implemented programs in Oklahoma in an effort to keep service members out of the state's correctional facilities.
A look at the past
In 1980, Robert Powitzky was chief of psychology for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He found himself writing the bureau's first PTSD program as a result of the significant increase in Vietnam veterans in prison.
“We were just swamped with Vietnam veterans,” Powitzky said.
In 1998, an estimated 56,500 Vietnam War-era veterans and 18,500 Persian Gulf War-era veterans were incarcerated in state and federal prisons, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
People did not understand what Vietnam veterans went through, he said.
“We didn't understand how a good person could enter the military and turn to drugs and suffer mental health problems as a result of the military experience,” Powitzky said. “I think we have a much better understanding of that.”
Powitzky said he anticipates seeing the number of incarcerated veterans increase in the next few years, but that hasn't happened just yet. He hopes diversion programs, such as veterans courts, are working.
When Bowman returned from Vietnam, no one took much interest in whether he was mentally stable.
“When you got turned loose from Vietnam, you were in the jungle today and in the street the next day, and nothing in between,” Bowman said.
When Bowman returned home from war, he was greeted with spit, swear words and racial slurs.
Tensions were high as the nation was divided on the Vietnam War.
Bowman said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, which didn't exist as a term in the world of psychology then.
It wasn't until 1980 that the American Psychiatric Association added PTSD to the third edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Before this distinction was made, people would sometimes refer to soldiers who had “shell shock” or “soldier's heart.”
A national study of Vietnam veterans in the 1990s found about 830,000 male and female Vietnam theater veterans, or 26 percent, had symptoms and related functional impairment associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The National Vietnam Veterans' Readjustment Study also found other psychological disorders common among Vietnam veterans included alcohol abuse and dependence, along with anxiety and personality disorders.
Upon his return, Bowman self-medicated his symptoms of PTSD with alcohol.
He would often drink heavily, including the February night in 1976 when he got into an argument at the Play Pen Lounge in Lawton.
Prosecutors alleged that Bowman and Michael J. Perkins got into a fight at the bar. Bowman and a few others forced Perkins into a car. They drove to the Wichita Mountains National Refuge near Lawton and Bowman beat Perkins with a tire tool. Perkins was found dead the following day, court records show.
Although Bowman said he does not remember all the details of that night, he does not deny he committed the crime.
PTSD alone will not cause a person to commit murder, said Bret Moore, a former Army psychologist and Iraq veteran.
“PTSD does not cause you to rob a bank or to murder, in my opinion, but PTSD and untreated PTSD and untreated depression can lead to substance use as a way to self-medicate,” Moore said. “We've been self-medicating with alcohol and drugs since the beginning of time, and it's no different for these guys coming back who are having some really significant stuff they're dealing with.”
And substance use and abuse mixed with PTSD can lead to poor decision making, which could lead to criminal behavior, said Moore, co-author of “Wheels Down: Adjusting to Life after Deployment.”
But, for example, if a veteran goes to a public place and uses a weapon to harm several people, a PTSD diagnosis shouldn't be seen as the sole reason he or she did that, he said.
The present and future
Bowman, who turns 70 this year, has been serving a 10-years-to-life sentence for more than half his life now.
He is involved in the prison's Messianic community, which has outreach programs for veterans.
“Now, praise God, I got my family back,” Bowman said. “I'm getting my brains back, sort of. There's still nights I don't sleep good, there's still things that flashback in my mind, and there's still things we all go through.”
Bowman was incarcerated before things like drug courts and veterans courts were established in Oklahoma.
In the county where Bowman was convicted, Fred Smith, the Comanche and Cotton County district attorney, is working to help veterans before they spiral out of control.
In the past few months, Smith and his staff have developed a veteran treatment court as an offshoot of drug court.
The program wasn't created because Smith and his staff were seeing a large number of veterans. However, Lawton is home to Fort Sill, where thousands of service members and their families live. Smith anticipated that, when the soldiers began returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, he would start to see them in his office.
“We expect more honorably discharged veterans to encounter such things as substance abuse and domestic abuse issues, things that may result in them being referred to the criminal justice system,” Smith said.
The majority of veterans won't go to jail or prison or end up having severe enough mental health issues that law enforcement gets involved, said Steve Scruggs, a clinical psychologist at the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center.
“There's not really great statistics on violence and PTSD but anecdotally, I can tell you very few of our folks are violent,” said Scruggs, an Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom readjustment program team leader.