New Veterans Treatment Court balances justice with healing

Monday, November 11, 2013 | 1:09 p.m. CST; updated 10:38 p.m. CST, Monday, November 11, 2013

COLUMBIA — Marked by the laying of wreaths, salutes and driveways lined with tiny American flags, Veterans Day is simultaneously a celebration of military service and a memorial for those who didn't return.

For those who do return, civilian life can be a struggle that can sometimes lead to trouble with the law. About 10 percent of prison inmates are veterans, though the percentage continues to decline, according to a report from 2004 by the U.S. Department of Justice.

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Veterans Treatment Courts was a topic on NPR's "The Diane Rehm Show" on Monday.  Rehm and her guests talked about how these programs are changing the lives of soldiers. To listen to the program, go to

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Between 11 percent and 20 percent of veterans of the United States' wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans of the Vietnam War are more susceptible — about 30 percent have the disorder. Even more battle anxiety, depression or substance abuse.

The new Veterans Treatment Court created in July for Boone and Callaway counties aims to create a support system tailored to veterans convicted of any crime, except murder and sexual assault. Instead of jail time, the participants are assigned to alcohol and drug rehabilitation programs and counseling.

It's part of a national trend that began in 2008 with the first Veterans Treatment Court, established by a New York judge who noticed increasing numbers of veterans in drug and mental health court. In Missouri, there are such courts in St. Louis and Boone, Jackson and Pulaski counties. There is also a regional veterans court division serving 16 counties in southeastern Missouri.

Behind the scenes

Planning began for the 13th Circuit's Veterans Treatment Court in 2011 when then-presiding Judge Gary Oxenhandler gave approval for its addition to the Circuit Court. 

Ten veterans are currently participating in the program, but the numbers constantly change. On Nov. 4, the court had its first graduate. 

Most participants are referred to the program by their attorneys or other judges, but they can also apply to the program on their own. The most important criterion for a potential candidate is that he or she needs psychological or substance abuse treatment and is eligible for treatment at a VA hospital.

The new court was made possible by a $100,000 donation from Veterans United Foundation.

"We try to focus on these lasting impact opportunities," said Megan Sievers, director of Veterans United Foundation. "We want to provide them with a hand-up, not a handout."

The original donation is meant to fund the court for three years, but Sievers said the foundation will consider continuing support after that. 

A culture of healing

In most courts of law, people shuffle nervously. Aside from the quiet murmuring between lawyers and defendants, the room is silent and people sit apart from each other. The judge seems imposing and steely.

But Judge Michael Bradley's court on a recent Monday in the Boone County Courthouse seemed friendlier. Before court started, participants chatted about families and pets. When Bradley asked a participant to lead everyone in the Pledge of Allegiance, he called him by first name as he did everyone else that day.

Instead of the normal court jargon of hearings and law, Bradley read participants' journal entries on topics he has assigned: the good things in their lives, their support system, how recovery has affected their relationships, their long-term goals, and relapse into drug and alcohol use.

As Bradley read through the entries, he smiled and congratulated each participant on his or her accomplishments. Whether the veteran earned a promotion at work or made progress on coping with large groups of people, the judge had something nice to say about it.

He shared some of the journal writing with the veterans and their mentors in the courtroom.

"I guess sometimes we gotta let life turn us upside-down so we can learn to live right-side up," one participant wrote in his journal.

Besides writing journal entries, participants must pass random drug and alcohol tests, meet with their mentor, go to probation meetings, attend therapy sessions at the veterans hospital and fulfill other requirements Bradley assigns.

If a participant meets all of the requirements, he or she can select a prize from the combat helmet on the judge's bench. Prizes include pens, cups, back-scratchers or a waiver that exempts the winner from the $2 fee required for every drug test.

"It's not really about the rewards," said Danielle Easter, a veteran justice outreach specialist at Truman Veterans Hospital who was in court earlier this month. . "But when they aren't called to get something from the helmet, they start wondering why."

Not all get to pick a prize from the hat, however. Two participants who had recently relapsed into drug use were sentenced to a few days in jail.

As Bradley told them of their sentence, the bailiff handcuffed and separated them from the others. Someone in the silent courtroom whispered "bummer" under his breath.

The atmosphere in the courtroom is generally more nurturing than punitive with a strong sense of community, Easter said.

"They're more comfortable," she said. "They're more open to talking to the judge. I think it helps that a lot of the court team members are veterans."

To create that sense of community, participants are required to stay throughout all of their peers' hearings, Easter said.

“The main purpose of this court is to get them all together and create a camaraderie between them," court coordinator Clayton VanNurden said. "Their military background teaches them to not leave anybody behind, and we want to create that effect.”

Mentors as friends

Each participant in the program is assigned a veteran mentor to provide support. The pairs must meet for one hour a week, though many spend more than the required time together, mentor program coordinator Brandi Clark said.

"It's hard for veterans to explain what they've been through," said Clark, who is also a veteran. "You can't make someone understand. A lot of the vets don't have that person to listen to them."

A good candidate for the mentor program has a strong military background and believes in the military's core values, Clark said. The mentors are meant to be friends, not counselors.

There are currently 13 mentors in the program, but Clark said she is always looking for new volunteers from a variety of backgrounds. She hopes to have 16 to 20 mentors soon.

The mentor program is an important part of the program, VanNurden said. Because the mentors are volunteers, the veterans see them as people who care about them and aren't just looking for a paycheck.

"They truly see that these people care about their success," VanNurden said.

Reaction from the participants has been positive, with few problems so far, Easter said. Despite the positive feedback, many who have transferred from other courts have said that the program is intense.

"It’s not an easy program," Easter said. "It takes a lot of work and behavioral changes."

But when it works, it works well, at least in the words of one veteran in a journal entry: "In a way, I feel that this court has saved my life."

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

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