By Rick Sobey

MeiaNews

BILLERICA -- The Middlesex County Sheriff's Office is leading the nation.

The Sheriff's Office is the first in the country to launch a program that identifies incarcerated veterans, provides support services while they're behind bars and helps create a smoother transition back into the community when they're released, Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian said Wednesday.

Koutoujian, who is running for Congress in the 5th District, announced the new initiative during a Wednesday press conference at Vietnam Veterans Park in Billerica. He was joined by Massachusetts Department of Veterans' Services Secretary Coleman Nee and Michael Galloucis, director of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs.

"We have more men and women returning home from theaters of war that require assistance, and we must do all that we can to support them in their need," Koutoujian said.

The agreement, signed by the sheriff's office, VA New England Healthcare and the Department of Veterans' Services, is designed to allow officials to better identify incarcerated veterans and "facilitate direct outreach to those individuals."

The program is intended to better assess veterans' needs and improve aftercare planning with the VA and department of veterans' services.

Koutoujian said it's essential to address this growing need as more veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic-brain injuries.

By setting up a unique plan for each veteran, the Sheriff's Office will help with referrals for employment, housing, substance-abuse counseling and mental-health services, Koutoujian said.

The Sheriff's Office identified 19 incarcerated veterans before this initiative; however, the VA and the sheriff's office identified 44 more veterans in custody because of the new program.

Koutoujian met with a dozen incarcerated veterans before the press conference, calling it a "powerful meeting."

One talked about not wanting to accept money from the government, looking to get a stable job that would "bring him somewhere," Koutoujian said.

"We can help them move on with more-fulfilled, better lives. They can spend time with their family, get a job, pay taxes and move on," Koutoujian said.

"Recidivism is a very terrible thing, and it affects the taxpayer bottom-line as well.

"This program will definitely change peoples' lives for the better," he added.

Kenneth Buffum, Billerica's director of veterans' services, said the program is a great start; Buffum said he looks forward to assist in any way that he can.

"I'm certain that some up there are from Billerica, and we will put our best foot forward to help them," Buffum said. "There's no doubt some in there have PTSD, and we need them to get help when they leave."

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