LAND O'LAKES — Underneath an American flag and above some videophones, five circular emblems overlook a floor in the Pasco County jail. They each represent a branch of the military, and in turn, the men locked away behind the painted blue walls.
The Pasco Sheriff's Office on Tuesday unveiled its new veterans' housing unit at the Land O'Lakes detention center. The unit houses more than 30 veterans and serves as a portal to connect the men with services such as counseling, rehabilitation, job placement, life skills and veteran outreach programs.
Sheriff's Capt. Ray Revell got the idea for the program on a recent leadership training trip to FBI headquarters in Quantico, Va. He brought the idea to Sheriff Chris Nocco, who started the program out in "baby steps."
"We want to help some of these guys get their pride and integrity back," Revell said. "A lot of them suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Some have substance abuse problems. Others are homeless."
One of the unit's purposes, Revell said, is to combat a return to criminal behavior by giving the inmates access to help. As long as they're incarcerated, Revell says, they're a captive audience, making them easier to reach.
"By bringing these programs to them they can give themselves a hand," Revell said.
Inmates who are veterans can qualify for assistance based on how they are classified in the system.
"If we had a serial killer," he said, "obviously he wouldn't be in here."
The University of South Florida provides treatment for PTSD called Accelerated Resolution Therapy and plans to treat inmates who qualify at no cost to the Sheriff's Office.
County Veterans Service Officer Brian Anderson said there are currently 50,000 vets in Pasco County, and that number will rise as more return from serving. He said it's important to think about "the real reason" behind why a vet ends up behind bars.
Transitioning from military to civilian life, he said, can be difficult, and a common civilian may not understand the lasting effects PTSD can have on a soldier.
Inmate Jerry Arnette, 36, is in jail on his third DUI charge. He said he was in the Navy for two years, but was discharged when his superiors found out he was gay. He was a victim of intense hazing and discrimination, he said, which he then tried to bury for the rest of his life.
"I never dealt with my own issues," he said. "I just locked it away."
Eventually, the feelings broke through when the bottle stopped working for him.
He hopes to get out soon, but he likes the unit because of the camaraderie he feels around other veterans.
Nocco said he plans to open a faith-based pod next.
"We give them an opportunity to get them back on their feet," he said. "An opportunity to lift themselves up."
Added Revell: "They all paid a debt to society and they all served their country."
Jon Silman can be reached at (727) 869-6229 or email@example.com.