Editor’s note: Names have been changed to protect the anonymity of the participants.
The young man stands before the bench at parade rest: head erect, feet apart, hands behind his back, thumbs interlaced.
“Tell me something I don’t know about you,” the judge says.
“I can do a standing back flip,” the young man replies.
The judge is impressed. “Really? Can you do one right now?” he asks.
The courtroom rustles as attendees shift their positions to get a better view. The young man squares his shoulders, crouches and throws the flip, landing neatly on his feet. The audience claps and shouts “Hooah!” in approval.
A scene like this would be unusual in an ordinary court, but not here. This is Veterans Court, presided over by Judge John R. Roach, himself a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. The judge wears a camouflage robe and from time to time will invite everyone in the courtroom to stop, drop and do 20 pushups.
Judge Roach started the Collin County Veterans Court in March 2013, and his remit has grown to encompass four other counties—Fannin, Grayson, Kaufman and Rockwall. It’s the first Regional Veterans Court in America. The Veterans Court Program Manager, Brennan Rivera-Jones, another former Marine, says, “The fact that we are able to come in to these outlying counties and serve the rural veterans is huge. If every Veterans Court in the U. S. could just take one additional county, the reach would be impressive.”
Judge Roach has a deep heart for veterans who find themselves on the wrong side of the law. He points out that while the qualities of toughness and aggression are rewarded in the military, these same qualities can make the transition to civilian life difficult. Veterans who are suffering from the invisible wounds of war—such as PTSD— are often “too tough or too proud to ask for help,” according to Judge Roach. They may also be in denial of their issues.
Veterans Court is a diversion program offered under the auspices of the District Attorneys of the participating counties. As the name implies, justice-involved veterans (JIVs) who qualify are diverted from the normal court system into a problem-solving program with judicial oversight, and treatment tailored to the rehabilitation needs of each individual.
According to Bill Wirskye, Collin County’s First Assistant District Attorney, diversion programs for various populations have been in operation for over two decades. They offer the DA an additional tool for dealing with non-violent defendants, beyond probation or incarceration. Diversion is desirable primarily for low-risk or first offenders, with the goal of intervening in their lives before a pattern of criminality can take hold. A new diversion concept is also being trialed in Collin County for much harder cases, such as those with a multi-generational history of incarceration. Speaking of Veterans Court, Mr. Wirskye says, “These people have served their country. We take a special interest in them.”
Veterans Court aims at outcomes that include healing from trauma, recovery from addiction, enhanced life skills and reintegration with the community. Upon completion of the program, the judge can enter an order for dismissal of the criminal charges—even expunction of the criminal record. The veteran gets a clean slate and a fresh start.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that 181,000 veterans are currently incarcerated in the U.S. Of those, over half are self-reported to have suffered from a mental health disorder such as PTSD. The number of incarcerated veterans has declined in the last fifteen years, due in part to the intervention of Veterans Courts.
The program isn’t for everyone. To be eligible for the North Texas Veterans Court Program, veterans must have served in the military with honor, and be charged with a non-violent criminal offense, be it a misdemeanor or felony. They must demonstrate that their behavior can be clearly traced to issues arising from or exacerbated by their military service, such as PTSD, traumatic brain injury (TBI), major depressive disorder or other combat-related mental illness.
Some military experiences may not result in a diagnosable cognitive condition, but still create a legacy of depression or anger that can lead to substance abuse, antisocial or criminal behavior, and even suicide. Mother Leslie Stewart, a veteran of the U. S. Air Force and an Episcopal priest who serves as chaplain for the Collin County Veterans Court, points out that female veterans in particular may be struggling with the consequences of military sexual trauma (MST). Former combatants may suffer moral injury—which she describes as experiences that have, put simply, caused a crisis in faith, or “your image of yourself as a good person to be broken.” Those who have killed and seen killing on battlegrounds are often burdened spiritually as well as mentally.
Tracing the root cause of a veteran’s criminal action can be a complex undertaking, but the bottom line is that many veterans need healing more than they need incarceration.
When an applicant meets the criteria for diversion and demonstrates to the satisfaction of the judge and the DA that they’re committed to the program’s many requirements, they plead guilty to the criminal charge and are admitted into the Veterans Court track.
“Veterans Court is not a ‘hug-a-thug’ program,” Judge Roach explains. “The veterans have to take responsibility for their actions, and do all the things that people on probation do, including taking classes and paying fines. Most importantly, the veterans are absolutely required to get treatment for their problems.”
Treatment begins with a clinical evaluation by Dr. Tracie Kaip, PsyD. Dr. Kaip is a neuropsychologist who has deep experience in assessing patients with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury. Using medical records from the VA or private providers, as well as her own interaction with the veteran, Dr. Kaip writes up an initial treatment recommendation.
Some veterans may require inpatient treatment for problems like substance abuse or TBI. For out-patient treatment, Dr. Kaip can recommend a wide range of therapeutic modalities, with a heavy emphasis on cognitive behavioral therapy. This may include cognitive processing therapy; dialectical behavioral therapy, which has been shown to be effective in treating aspects of PTSD symptoms and other personality issues; problem-solving therapy; and prolonged exposure therapy. The latter in particular is geared toward “taking away the power from the trauma the person experienced,” Dr. Kaip says.
Equine therapy has also been helpful to many veterans. Horses are incredibly sensitive to human emotion, and act as large biofeedback sensors. Veterans get insight into their own thoughts and feelings while interacting with horses, which helps them develop empathy and patience, among other qualities.
Veterans of wars, from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, often have invisible scars that they carry around with them for decades before seeking help. Judge Roach says, “These veterans deserve the opportunity to turn their lives around. They do the hard work. The Court just provides them the tools.”
Within the Veterans Court program, the justice-involved veterans are supported informally, but importantly, by other veterans in the community who volunteer to act as mentors. “A mentor is like a battle-buddy,” Judge Roach says. A mentor is also a role model, coach, and a supportive voice on the other end of the phone.
Joe Lynch, Sr. leads the mentors in Rockwall County. Lynch is a 23-year veteran of the U. S. Army, and served as a helicopter gunner during the Vietnam War. He’s the recipient of numerous medals and commendations, including the Silver Star Medal, Purple Heart, Air Medal for Heroism, and the Army Commendation Medal for Heroism. He handpicks other veterans to be mentors in Veterans Court, people whom he knows can relate to the gamut of military experiences.
Lorna Kipphut, a newly elected city council member in McLendon-Chisholm and a veteran of the U. S. Air Force, says, “There was a female veteran in the program and she was not responding to the male mentors. The DA, the judge, and Joe Lynch thought that they needed a female to be a mentor. That’s how I became involved.” She points out that even after separation from the military, it’s a common saying that you never stop serving.
The experience of attending a Veterans Court is unique. Judge Roach explains that in a normal court, he hears cases one on one, makes a decision, and moves on to the next case. By contrast, the North Texas Veterans Court holds hearings once a month in each of the five counties, and all the veterans in a county’s program are mandated to show up. One by one, in front of their peers, they stand before the judge to describe their progress and answer his questions.
Judge Roach has been well prepared in advance, meeting with his staff and representatives of the DA’s office, the defense attorneys, probation officers, corrections, Veteran Services and the VA. As a team, they review all reports that relate to the veterans’ compliance with therapy and other orders. The judge is interested not only in each veteran’s healing progression and program adherence, but also in helping him or her with other basic needs in regard to employment, housing, transportation and any family issues.
Judge Roach is quick to point out that he tries to give the veterans the treatment they deserve—and if they have failed a drug or alcohol test, blown off their therapy, or become involved again with the police, he will impose sanctions on them without a second thought. In order words, send them directly to jail. He’s also been known to leave his own family on Thanksgiving to visit the veterans he has put in jail. “I’m their biggest cheerleader,” he says. “I’m also the worst accountability partner they’ll have in their whole life. Because they have to follow the rules.”
Veterans Court participants complete treatment and a plethora of assignments to progress through three phases over the course of one or two years. Phase one is for crisis stabilization, intervention and early recovery. Phase two focuses on active recovery, education and relapse prevention. Phase three is spent preparing for transition out of the program.
The culmination is graduation from the program, which Judge Roach prefers to call commencement. “You are ending one chapter of your life, but you are now commencing a new chapter of sobriety: less anger and anxiety, back to who you were before.”
Who were they before? The participant handbook offers this image: “Each Veteran in this Court has demonstrated commitment, courage, and self-discipline in their role as a member of the United States military. You are expected to demonstrate these same characteristics while fulfilling the expectations of the Court.”
Sometimes the courage that made a warrior a valuable asset in the military is the very trait that causes their downfall in civilian life. One former Army Airborne sapper—a combat engineer, with responsibilities that include clearing minefields—told the judge that he had lost all fear of consequences for his behavior, which contributed to the actions that led to his arrest.
For most JIVs, being arrested and charged with a crime is a heavy blow to their already fragile self-esteem. “I was so ashamed when I was arrested,” Martin Johnson*, a veteran of the U. S. Navy, says. In the Navy, Johnson was assigned to counter-narcotics missions in Panama, fighting guerillas who were protecting their cocaine supply chain. On his last sortie, Johnson was on point and during an exchange of gunfire, a bullet ricocheted off a tree and struck him in the back. He was Medevac’d out. After surgery and six months of convalescence, it became apparent that he could only continue his service in a desk job, which he declined.
Back in civilian life, Johnson pursued a degree in aeronautical science and earned a commercial pilot’s license. Eventually he became a first officer with a major airline. Unfortunately, after a few years of flying, his back injury was aggravated, and he was forced out of this second career, again for medical reasons.
“That was when I started to experience serious problems with my mental health,” he recalls. “It was depressing. I lost touch with reality. I couldn’t go into Kroger, because they play background music, and I couldn’t tell if they were really playing music or if only I could hear it. I was paranoid.
“Within a year or two, I began to relate to people who were less than savory, and resorted to crime. It was such a gradual decline I didn’t notice what I was doing. I got desensitized to the drinking, to the blackouts and then to committing crime. Inevitably, I got caught.”
Johnson was admitted to Veterans Court, and he calls it “the second best thing that happened to me in my life.” He believes that without the therapy and guidance it offered him, he would have served his jail time, and then returned to a life of crime.
Johnson says it took him months to recognize the judge’s firmness as compassion, and to appreciate it. “While your body and mind are clearing up from alcohol and drugs, the judge has his thumb on you. That keeps you on the straight and narrow. What helps you beyond Veterans Court is the therapy. With therapy, I was able to redefine my alcohol use. I had used it cope, to self-medicate, to socialize. After therapy, alcohol no longer had that appeal for me. Neither had those so-called friends of mine.” Johnson graduated from Veterans Court after 21 months.
Paul Carter* is another participant in Veterans Court who had important responsibilities in the military, in his case, with U. S. Army Intelligence. He became a linguist, using his skills to listen in to transmissions and “identify bad guys,” he says. Carter was deployed at different times to Baghdad and Ramadi, as an intelligence platoon leader. “Our job was triangulating bad guy communications to try and figure out where ambush sites were, sniper hides, RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) teams, and things of that nature. It was definitely helpful for the guys driving around in tanks.”
As intelligence needs shifted, Carter moved from country to country, and continent to continent. Eventually he became a foreign area officer, which requires a master’s degree and specialized training. Carter’s new role was as subject matter expert for Southeast Europe. By this time he had mastered four foreign languages.
Long stretches away from his family, and watching his kids grow up on Skype, took their toll. His wife asked for a divorce, and at the same time Carter was preparing to retire from the military. For him, it was like losing the support of two families at once. Suddenly, he felt his life unraveling.
“I couldn’t understand what was going on with me at that time,” Carter says. The Army organized two bouts of rehab for him, one for addiction and another for trauma recovery. “I went to a really dark place. I was suicidal.”
After his arrest for a DUI, Carter was fortunate enough to be admitted to Veterans Court. “I knew I would lose my case in a regular court, so Veterans Court offered me a second chance.”
Carter particularly appreciates the support he receives from his mentor, Joe Lynch. “In the Army, as an officer, you have to rely on others. I’m used to reaching out to my subject matter experts, and trusting their judgement. My mentor can help me navigate my way through this process. He’s my expert.”
Carter feels strongly about the need for veterans to receive the treatment they require, so they can avoid becoming a drain on society, “the weirdo neighbor who never opens his curtains … and then you hear about a suicide. Now that I’ve got a little time in the program, I feel very lucky.”
Veterans Court works for veterans on many levels, and it works for society. In the general population, the five-year recidivism rate is around 60 percent. For graduates of Veterans Court, it’s seven to nine percent, according to Judge Roach. One veteran, appearing before the judge in shackles while serving out his jail sanction, reported that he had had an epiphany: “I only fail if I give up,” he said.