Deep inside the Douglas County Jail, bugle music rouses a group of men each day as the sun rises and all the other inmates continue to sleep.

The recorded reveille strikes a familiar and common chord in this group of 25 to 30 men. They're all military veterans. They've all chosen to do their jail time in the Douglas County Department of Corrections' new veterans housing unit, believed to be first of its kind in Nebraska and one of about a dozen in county jails nationwide.

The men rise from their low-slung beds. After minimal morning ministrations, they file past a U.S. flag, out the door unlocked by a corrections officer and down the hall to a small gym. One of the men leads them through a brief but rigorous series of exercises, or P.T. in military parlance.

They file back to their unit. The guard locks the door. The men assemble in their eating and meeting area. They arrange themselves to face the flag, standing with hands over hearts, and they recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

Then they say an additional pledge written by the first men in the jail's unit for veterans. Basically, it's a promise that they will work together to try to do better.

Initial indications are that they are doing just that.

Barely three months old, the unit already is exceeding the expectations of Douglas County Corrections Director Mark Foxall and his staff.

"I've only been here seven years, but I've never seen a unit like this," said Justine Wall, the department's in-house program coordinator. "Where everybody looks out for each other, everybody takes care of each other."

Similar units are beginning to pop up around the nation. There are about a dozen in state prisons and three in federal prisons, in addition to those in county jails. Nebraska state prisons currently don't have veterans units, but the State Department of Correctional Services is exploring the idea.

"NDCS is analyzing, not only the feasibility of establishing a veterans unit, but also the associated program and treatment most beneficial to this segment of our population," department spokesman Andrew Nysom said by email.

Foxall launched the Douglas County unit in November.

Douglas County Community Corrections Director Michael Myers had suggested it after seeing a video about a veterans block in the Kennebec County jail in Maine. It was created by Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty, himself an Iraq War veteran who struggled with his anger and felt a patriotic duty to help rehabilitate veterans.

Like veterans treatment courts, which are being considered by the Nebraska Legislature, the veterans housing units in jails are based on the idea that many crimes committed by veterans, especially those who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, are related to things that happened to them in the military.

"People who went downrange, they saw things, they have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), they are back, they self-medicate and they get in trouble," said Mick Wagoner, a lawyer with the Veterans Support Legal Network.

That describes some of the veterans in the Douglas County Jail's veterans housing unit, though not all.

It's open to all male military veterans except for the most dangerous, predatory or disruptive people. People facing murder charges aren't eligible, nor are those with chronic behavior problems in jail.

U.S. Veterans Affairs staff look through the jail census daily and identify inmates who have served in the military.

On most days, there are about 40 male veterans among the approximately 1,100 people locked up.

The jail usually has one female veteran, or none, not enough for a separate housing unit. The jail can't house women and men together, Myers said, but it offers the same services to women veterans that are offered to men.

Qualifying veterans are given the option of being placed in the unit, separate from the general inmate population.

The unit consists of two large dorm-like bedrooms, a common room with tables and chairs, a bathroom and showers, and a corrections officer station. The jail cleared and converted an existing housing unit to make room.

The men are locked in the unit most of the time.

They could be there for a few days or several months.

Some are serving sentences for misdemeanor crimes. Others are awaiting trial on felony charges, which could lead to prison time. Some have been convicted of felonies and are awaiting sentencing.

The unit started with seven men. A couple still were there among the 28 who were in the unit this week.

They came from all branches of U.S. military service. They ranged in age from their 20s to their 60s. This week's group included mostly whites but also a few black men and a Native American. Some had served in Vietnam. Some fought in Iraq or Afghanistan. Some served stateside in peacetime.

For Foxall, a big attraction of the unit is that services can be brought to the inmates.

There are several agencies and programs, such as the VA and nonprofits At Ease, Good News Jail & Prison Ministry, Veterans Legal Support Network, that offer services to help veterans with everything from addiction and mental health issues to exploring military discharge upgrades, education, housing and employment preparation.

After their morning routine, the men meet in groups or one-on-one with counselors and advisers.

They have support group meetings.

More than one-fourth of the veterans who have come into the unit did not leave the military with honorable discharges, Wagoner said. That means they are not eligible for VA health care or such benefits as college tuition or home loans.

Nonprofits provide help with some of those services, but many veterans don't know about them.

Other veterans with honorable discharges may not know about, or know how to access, the benefits to which they are entitled.

Foxall noted that one person from the jail's veterans housing unit assumed that he had a dishonorable discharge and so couldn't receive VA health benefits. But it was learned while he was in jail that he had an honorable discharge.

Jail staff and the service providers also help the men put together a plan for what they're going to do when they get out of jail.

If that includes ongoing addiction treatment or counseling, for example, they meet the people who are going to be working with them — a "warm handoff" instead of just being given a business card and a number to call.

The corrections officers in the unit also are veterans. They volunteered to be assigned to the unit.

They include Corrections Officer Peter Panicucci, who served 10 years in the U.S. Marines and still is in the Nebraska National Guard.

"I believe in helping the vets out," Panicucci said.

There's more camaraderie in the veterans unit than in other parts of the jail, between the inmates, and between them and the officers, he said.

"We all have that common thing," Panicucci said. "We're all veterans. We're all military. We have one common goal."

The military-like routines help instill that. But it doesn't mean that everybody likes every aspect of them.

"One gentleman, every morning he flips me off when I do reveille, because he hates bugles," Panicucci said. "If he doesn't flip me off, I know something's wrong."

Panicucci does the morning P.T. with the inmates, including several sets of pushups, crunches and lunges. They razz each other as they work out.

"I know most of the guys in here from previous engagements," Panicucci said.

But he's hopeful that they'll be less likely to return to the jail again.

"Hopefully with the chain we started in here, they'll all have their support when they get out," Panicucci said.

One inmate recently was released from jail without his after-care packet. Panicucci took the information to the man's house.

In their downtime, the vets put together puzzles. Many have patriotic themes. Some are missing pieces. When they complete a puzzle, they place it on the wall. They leave the holes of missing pieces there.

This is symbolic to the men, Myers said. They are never going to be the same, but they can put their lives back together, he said.

Douglas County Board members P.J. Morgan, Mary Ann Borgeson and Mike Boyle toured the unit recently and observed the veterans' morning routines. U.S. Rep. Brad Ashford accompanied them.

They watched as 53-year-old Navy veteran Brad Courcier led the men through the physical training and as the veterans recited the Pledge of Allegiance inside their locked unit.

The elected officials said they were impressed by what they saw. They talked with the inmates and encouraged them.

While they were there, Justine Wall announced that a man who had been in the unit, one of the original seven, was doing well and recently landed a job.

The inmates broke into applause.

"It's good to see guys who were struggling be successful because of this program," Courcier said in an interview later.

Courcier, also one of the first seven in the program, said he had left the Navy with less than an honorable discharge and fell into homelessness and addiction. He's awaiting sentencing on a federal drug charge and expects prison time. But he feels better equipped to improve himself this time.

There are men in the unit whose actions have put them in a very tough spot and who fit the description offered by Wagoner, of the Veterans Support Legal Network.

Charles O'Dowd is awaiting sentencing. He was convicted of assault for attacking his girlfriend.

O'Dowd, 28, saw combat during two deployments to Iraq as a cavalry scout. He did reconnaissance missions, raids and helped train the Iraqi Army and members of the Kurdish peshmerga militias. He was in the Army for 6 1/2 years.

"Once I finished (my second) tour, things started getting worse for me," O'Dowd said. "I started getting in trouble at work, my marriage started to fail; I ended up getting out of the Army (with) like eight months left on my contract."

It got worse after he left the Army.

"I've been out of the military for a little over two years, and I've spent at least a year in jail already, or a year and a half," he said.

O'Dowd said he had been in a treatment program for veterans with PTSD-related problems in Hot Springs, South Dakota, but was kicked out and then got arrested for trying to escape police there while driving drunk.

O'Dowd was on probation in Omaha and waiting to go back into the program in Hot Springs when he was arrested on his current charge.

O'Dowd was in the Douglas County Jail for a couple months before he accepted the invitation to go to the veterans housing unit.

"Since I've been there it's been a lot better, being with other vets; even the guards are vets," he said. "It's good to talk to them, connect with other veterans. We have a lot of good people come in who are volunteers who are mostly vets."

O'Dowd said there's a big difference between the veterans unit and the general population in the jail.

"It kind of separates us from the negative people in here who are not trying to better themselves in any way, people with real bad, not positive outlooks."

But the veterans, he said, "have classes during the day and a lot of people trying to help us, so that once we get out of here, we don't go back out to drinking or using or whatever we were doing that would be getting us locked back up in here."

He said he's taking advantage of all the services being offered in the unit and plans to continue doing so after he's released.

"It's a good opportunity for a lot of veterans to sort of turn their life around and get out of whatever rut or whatever they're going through right now to help put their lives back together," O'Dowd said.

The veterans housing unit adds very little cost to the jail. It's just a little overtime pay for the unit's guards to attend team meetings with veterans program staff, Myers said.

"At the most, we are paying an additional couple of hundred dollars per week," he said. "In exchange, we are getting thousands of dollars of services from our partners delivered onsite and connections to services and support in the community, which results in jobs, sobriety and many other benefits, whose dollar value is exponentially more significant."

Contact the writer: 402-444-1057, christopher.burbach@owh.com

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