It is a Friday afternoon and I am standing next to a young man in a Fresno County Superior Courtroom, listening as he reads a letter to the judge that he has written. He is expressing his gratitude for being allowed to enter a program that is helping him turn his life around.
He describes the trauma that has haunted him since returning from his 2006 deployment to Iraq with the Marines. He tells of the resolve and hope that welled up within him the moment the district attorney pulled him out of court just prior to sentencing and said, “You’re not going to jail. Instead, we are going to help you with your PTSD.”
Then she did something that he never expected from a DA. She gave him a hug.
He will never forget that hug. When he finishes this poignant letter, every member of the court, including me, is wiping tears from their eyes. There is a moment of respectful silence, and then applause. I am a Vietnam veteran, a former Marine lieutenant, and I am his mentor.
He and I have talked many hours over the last few months. I have mostly listened and I know that his letter is true because I am watching him change before my eyes. He entered the system expecting a hammer to fall. Instead, he has encountered a group of powerful people who are committed to helping him. This is a different kind of court.
This program is called Veterans Treatment Court. It began in 2008 when a judge from Buffalo, New York, saw a rising number of young veterans appearing in his court for alcohol and drug abuse, as well as mental issues. He assembled a team of court officials, Veterans Affairs managers, and volunteer veterans who began working together, resulting in the formation of VTC.
VTC was brought to Fresno by a man named Bob McLaughlin about 15 months ago. Bob served two tours in Vietnam as a crew chief on a CH-47 Chinook. Unfortunately, like many in today’s program, he brought the war home with him. After a failed marriage and more than a few bar fights, he realized one day in a counseling session that he not only had a problem, but help was available.
Following a successful career in sales management, he immersed himself in veteran’s causes and has yet to encounter a hill too tall to climb to help a vet in need.
The program is a collaboration of the entities in the justice system as well as the VA, and former veterans who serve as mentors. There are more facets to the 18-month program than can be covered in a short article, but briefly, the courts determine eligibility.
If an offender qualifies and opts to participate after pleading guilty to his crime, he is evaluated by the VA to determine a treatment regimen and assigned a mentor. He remains on probation until graduation.
Though the VA and judicial system are the backbone, without mentors, this program would not work. Most of the participants are younger men and most of our mentors are retired or semi-retired. A mentor comes alongside, provides a listening ear and guidance, makes sure his charge is following his plan, and helps find resources when needed without interfering with the roles of professional providers.
We all agree that it is a privilege and one of the most rewarding things we have done. These men are our brothers-in-arms. The impact of believing in a young man who is down cannot be underestimated. Each of us could tell many stories.
I attend pre-court meetings in chambers. I have been greatly impressed by the camaraderie and unity of this team. There is no trace of acrimony. All present are focused on one thing – the welfare of the veteran being discussed.
As the judge goes through the names on the docket, group discussions ensue. All input is respected and the human factor in each success or failure is taken into account. Each vet is more than a case number. He is a person – a person worth redeeming. It is rewarding, inspiring, and it is working.
As we celebrate the completion of our first year, it is deeply satisfying to count 22 men and one woman in the program, with 15 mentors on board. As it grows, this dynamic program can’t help but gain greater recognition and support. And as that happens, not just local veterans, but the community at large will be the better for it.
Gid Atkisson of Clovis is a retired industrial salesman and a freelance writer. He is the author of “Infantry Lieutenant.” Connect with him at email@example.com. To mentor or be part of the program, email Adkisson.