Members of the U.S. military returning to civilian life have encountered a range of challenges, from joblessness to post-traumatic stress disorder. Now for those who run afoul of the law there is a program operating in Fort Worth, Texas, meant to put them on a path toward rehabilitation.
The Tarrant County Courthouse operates the Veterans Treatment Court every third Thursday of the month. Rather than imposing incarceration, Judge Chuck Vanover administers a rehabilitation program that offers veterans a bargain that puts their guilty pleas on hold if they they sign up with a mentor, show up every month and stay out of trouble.
Vanover, who serves in the Texas State Guard, requires that the veterans' court takes a minimum of 10 months. Veterans who complete the mission walk away with their criminal charge expunged — any trace of it wiped from their record.
Prosecutor Deanna Franzen, a former Air Force member, said many offenses among veterans are alcohol- and drug-related — "and that has a lot to do with them sometimes acting out on demons that they earned during their time in the military."
"The struggles that they have were because they did things for our country that we needed them to do at that time. And that can't be discounted," Franzen said.
Judge Vanover said that after fighting in war, veterans sometimes have a hard time adjusting to civilian life, "where they don't have the camaraderie, the team, the structure, the discipline."
The first Veterans Treatment Court was created in Buffalo, New York, 15 years ago. Since then, about 500 specialized courts around the U.S. have been created to meet specific needs of veterans.
The program in Fort Worth has proven to be successful. Courtney Young, an administrator of the program, said the program has graduated 600 veterans and the recidivism rate is less than 10%, significantly lower compared to the general population.
A recent report from a national commission chaired by former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel revealed that 1 in 3 veterans says they've been arrested at least once, and veterans now make up 8% of the population in state prisons.
William Meek, who served in Iraq, said his experience as an infantryman led to head injuries and subsequent struggles during his transition to civilian life. Meek said that after the war he felt "angry," and he was later arrested for unlawful carry of a weapon. He decided to try Vanover's Veterans Treatment Court.
At first, he thought it would be easier than a traditional punishment, but he found it to be more challenging.
"Regular probation would've been so much easier," Meek said.
The program had such an impact on Meek that the same judge who oversaw his punishment presided over his marriage.
Meek now spends once a week working in the court where he's seen, first-hand, how hard the struggle can be.
"The very first veteran who ever came and asked me to be his mentor, he took his life, back in the day. So, I always tell people, 'We all have demons, everybody in this room has demons.' But I also tell people, 'No one in this room is alone,'" he said.
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