Life after military service can pose many difficulties for former servicemembers. The order and schedules they lived under for years are taken away all at once, and the stresses of their duties may have left them with psychological issues that often go undiagnosed and untreated. While some fortunate servicemembers have supportive families to return to, others end up living on the streets or, even worse, in prison.

While the subject of incarcerated veterans may be uncomfortable for some, social workers at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs have made it their mission to increase support programs available to servicemembers struggling with life after service. When it comes to former soldiers in prison, veterans benefits entitle them to transition programs that can help them get back on their feet and working to put their military skills to good use in positions of steady employment.

Getting a clear picture
The exact number of incarcerated veterans is difficult to identify. Some people in prison may falsify military service and others simply cannot be found by the current VA system. According to the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics that was compiled in 2004, 10 percent of prisoners at the state level reported past military service. Of that number 54 percent served during a wartime period, though only 20 percent reported experiencing combat duty.

Regardless of the nature of their time in the military, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration explained that veterans often experience complicated mental issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder that leads to high rates of unemployment and homelessness – almost 75 and 25 percent, respectively, among incarcerated veterans.

The most common offenses include misdemeanors of driving under the influence, assault, possession of an illegal substance, theft and other minor traffic violations.

Connecting veterans with help
The picture may seem bleak for incarcerated veterans, but various programs seek to match veterans struggling with life after military service, such as the one that Jim Haskell, Veteran Reentry Specialist for the VA, works for. Haskell works to identify veterans in the Maryland prison system and advocates for their rehabilitation and release from incarceration, Stars and Stripes reported.

"Because so many people with mental health conditions and substance abuse conditions are winding up in the judicial system, it's really incumbent upon us to reach out to them and make sure that they're getting the proper services that they need," Haskell told Stars and Stripes. "Basically, that's what we do, is connect veterans to those services."

Haskell travels into prisons across the state to meet with different veterans serving time for past criminal offenses. Rather than providing them with pamphlets of information, Haskell sets up mental health evaluations and presents the results to judges and parole officers to lobby for more lenient forms of treatment. The hope, Haskell said, is that veterans are removed from the punitive justice system and placed into programs that can give them a better chance at rehabilitating their lives.

Former Air Force nuclear missile mechanic Williams Ames remembered meeting Haskell for the first time upon his most recent arrest in 2011. 

"Just hearing somebody from the VA, I was like, 'Damn, I'm glad now,'" Ames told Stars and Stripes. "I figured this was maybe an opportunity to get my life back in order."

With Haskell's help, that is exactly what Ames did. In 2012, the former servicemember was moved into a veterans re-entry group at the Maryland VA Medical Center and then a residential treatment facility in Baltimore. Ames now works as a cook in the same facility where he began his journey toward rehabilitation and has plans to find full-time employment as a line cook after he completes his program.

For Haskell, Ames' journey is all in a day's work.