Veterans Day: When vets run afoul of the law, these courts care
Modeled after local drug or family courts, veterans courts are springing up, stressing rehabilitation and mentoring over jail time. Is it special treatment, or deserved consideration?
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But for a former service member trying to rebuild his life, the veterans courts offer multiple benefits. When vets walk into the courtroom, they have immediate computer access to local VA officials, who can refer them to services such as counseling, benefits, or job training.Skip to next paragraph
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"Many of the vets have claims that have been pending for years," says Jack O'Connor, the mentor coordinator for the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court. "The vet's getting more done in his first day with the judge than he's gotten done with the VA in his whole life."
Moreover, they are watched over by the court's volunteer mentors, who are vets themselves, and will often go to great lengths to help their charges. They drive them to counseling appointments hours away, and help them line up interviews and find housing, for example.
"When we go to serve our country, sometimes we don't realize that the sacrifice continues when we come home," says Philip Ippolito, a military veteran and team leader for the court's mentors, choking back tears at the graduation ceremony. "And because of that sacrifice, we struggle."
Are the courts just for criminals?
When word of these services got out, however, it did not sit well with some vets, who asked whether they would have to commit a crime to have access to care that they had been seeking through the VA and the Pentagon's bureaucratic channels, sometimes for years.
One afternoon, a veteran came into the court yelling. He wanted to know why those who were arrested got immediate services, but he, as a law-abiding citizen, had seen his claim languish with the VA for years.
His aggressive loudness led him to be "immediately taken to the ground," says Mr. O'Connor. "But we all heard what he said."
In response, the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court established what it calls its "line to the left." Anyone who wants help from a mentor of the court can come before the court and meet with them to get advice and help on their claim.
The mentors' dedication comes from a deep sympathy. They know what veterans in the program are going through, they say, because they have often struggled mightily themselves.
Mentors' dedication: They've been there
Trueman Muhrer was an Army private first class when he deployed to Iraq as part of the invasion.
On security for an explosive ordnance disposal unit, Mr. Muhrer was in the gun turret of his Humvee when it was hit by a roadside bomb. He spent four months in the hospital. His buddy, the assistant gunner in the passenger seat, was killed.
During his time in recovery, Muhrer saw "a lot of veterans going through struggles, just dealing with the system. There are a lot of places where people need an advocate."
People like Justin Smith, who was deployed to Iraq as a private first class at the height of the war as a gunner on Route Irish, widely known at the time as the most dangerous road in the world.
"We did patrols almost every day," Mr. Smith recalls.
After he returned from war, Smith felt angry and lost. "I knew I had a problem – my temper. I never really sleep," he says.
Then he found himself homeless. "Luckily, it was summertime. It was warm outside, so I could wander."
Then, in July 2011, Smith got into a high-speed chase with police. He could have been charged with a felony, but instead was referred to veterans court. "That basically kind of saved me," he says. "It was a relief – I was thinking I was going to be in jail for quite some time."
Mentors helped Smith apply for VA disabilities. "I didn't even know I was supposed to be receiving benefits for post-traumatic stress," he says.
Now he has a home, cares for his two young sons, and gets anger-management counseling. "I can buy a house – I can do almost anything I want."
The court and the camaraderie it provides create "a pretty welcoming environment," he adds, explaining that his mentor "told me about his symptoms, the stuff he dealt with – we went through the same stuff."
That said, he adds, "I always kind of feel alone anyways."