The Fort Hood Veterans Endeavor for Treatment and Support (VETS) Court graduated its first three veterans Friday at the III Corps headquarters building.
The veterans graduated after a year of counseling, alcohol-abuse treatment and peer mentoring in order to clear their records from federal misdemeanors.
A year and a half ago, the program did not exist. It is the first federal veterans treatment court operating on a U.S. military installation and allows veterans suffering from the mental effects of their military service to get the treatment they need to become productive members of society again.
Maj. Gen. John Uberti, deputy III Corps commander, said it was an honor to host the first graduation of the VETS Court.
“This is an incredible opportunity, and yet another opportunity to reinforce the Army values,” he said. “It demonstrates that our soldiers are soldiers for life. We couldn’t do this without our interagency partners and we’re very appreciative of (U.S. Federal Magistrate Judge Jeffrey) Manske — and really the entire judicial probation system and the western district of Texas for allowing us this opportunity.”
Uberti said the three graduates — Carlos Fields, Lindsey Jones and a third who wished to remain anonymous — exemplified the Army values.
“Yes, they may have fallen and made a mistake, but their personal courage, their honor, their integrity with themselves, really demonstrates the warrior ethos that they will always place the mission first,” he said. “They will never quit, always complete the mission and will never leave their fallen.”
The program could not have happened without veteran mentors from the local community, however, Uberti said. Each of the veterans going through the program — which now has 12 participating — were paired with a local veteran who volunteered to spend the full year of counseling with them, ensuring those in the program get to meetings and meet all the requirements to graduate.
Capt. Patrick Robinson felt the program would be beneficial to Fort Hood after seeing programs in state courts help veterans stay out of the judicial system by getting them the mental help they needed to recover from military and combat-related stress.
The federal prosecutor for the Fort Hood judge advocate general’s office pitched the idea to Manske, and the court was instituted to help struggling veterans who got into trouble while on post.
Robinson said that prosecutors try to match the input about the offender and the offense to achieve justice. He gave an example of a veteran being pulled over for driving under the influence that helped him see that justice, sometimes, is giving a deserving person a second chance.
“When you start digging into that case and you realize ... The person driving that car has a problem with alcohol, a diagnosable substance use disorder,” he told those gathered to witness the graduation. “Turns out it was a veteran who served 15 years before being honorably discharged as a noncommissioned officer. That particular veteran has a campaign medal for Afghanistan with two campaign stars; a campaign medal from Iraq with three campaign stars. A total of 59 months deployed forward in war zones in support of the nation. How do you do justice in that case?”
A little more digging found the veteran was struggling with depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress and the alcohol use was a method of coping, Robinson said. As a prosecutor, traditional forms of justice to avoid future crimes, such as jail or probation, just didn’t seem to the right way to honor someone who gave so much for his country.
“How about something more holistic — how about an approach that combines supervision in the community, treatment and mentorship from community veterans and peer-to-peer support from veterans going through that program?” he asked. “You have an opportunity to bring together a community around these veterans. You ... Keep that veteran moving forward on the road to recovery. You keep them moving forward to restore their honor. That last option is what the Fort Hood (VETS) was launched to do.”
The veteran Robinson spoke of was Fields, a Killeen resident.
“Transitioning from the military can be a difficult phase of life for some veterans,” he said. “While you’re serving, you grow accustomed to the stability, discipline and having an identity. You’re life has a certain balance to it.”
Losing the stability of a steady income, guaranteed healthcare, housing and more can be very daunting, Fields said.
“During this time of uncertainty, some of us lose our way — this is the struggle I went through,” he said. “I had five deployments and I thought I was more than ready to start civilian life. But after adding that fifth deployment, I began to fall deeper into a depression I was already feeling. Before I knew it, I found myself on the losing end of a battle with alcoholism and on the wrong end of the law.”
Jones, also a Killeen resident, said the program helped her regain her meaning in life.
“I want you all to know how truly blessed I am to be speaking to you today,” she said. “I was transitioning out of the military and struggling with severe anxiety, depression and alcoholism. I was terrified of my future — I had no direction, confidence or support.”
When she first entered the program, Jones said she didn’t know what to expect.
“You made me sober. I’m getting my confidence back, starting to overcome my anxiety, getting back into the community and meeting so many awesome people along the way,” she said. “The connections and resources this program has to offer are incredible — because of this program, I’ve been able to take a more active role in the veteran community.”
Jones has now been sober for a year and a half and remains confident in her recovery. She went to school and has maintained a 3.5 GPA while finishing her degree in business management.
“I’m extremely happy with where and who I am today,” she said. “This program is so much more than an opportunity to help troubled veterans to remain out of our criminal systems — it’s a process and a journey that not only gives second chances to those like myself who have been struggling with mental disorders, it forces you to be honest, accountable, open, vulnerable, involved and most of all, successful.”
Manske, whose Waco district judicial jurisdiction includes Fort Hood, said the program is not only a “win” for the veterans who go through it, but it’s also a win for the judicial system.
“Each of these fine folks has demonstrated that they deserve the right to have their criminal charges dismissed,” he said. “And it’s a win for the judiciary because programs of this type have demonstrated that it dramatically reduces the recidivism rate.”
Manske said he had seen many veterans appear before him during his 16 years as a U.S. magistrate because they were unable to properly cope with the pains associated with their service.
“The idea of a veterans court opens an additional avenue for addressing this ... One that leverages existing programs offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs along with the commitment and dedication of the greater veteran community,” he said. “I think it’s safe to say that this program has demonstrated its potential. As we move forward, we are excited to continue our support of local veterans and share our insights with similar programs as they take root across the country.”
Senate Majority Whip U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, who provided the commencement speech, said it was a true honor to see the “warrior ethos” in action.
“Not only when men and women wear the uniform of the United States, but when they take it off and become a veteran — our commitment to them does not waiver,” Cornyn said. “It certainly does not end.”
As a self-described “recovering judge” himself, the senator said the judicial system has a need to give a second chance to those who truly deserve the opportunity.
“What I love about Texas is we have innovators; we have people who are willing to start something new when they have a great idea that we can then use as an example to the rest of the country,” he said. “I’m going to take what I learned here today back to Washington, so I can make sure that this example can be duplicated in military bases around the country. The lessons we’ve learned, that judges are there for more than just ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key,’ (because) sometimes people just need a helping hand. For those willing to accept the responsibility, as these graduates have, to be held accountable and take advantage of the opportunity to turn their lives around, is not only heart-warming but it really represents the best use of tax dollars and judicial resources.”
Setting up the VETS Court is also a way the American people can show veterans they will not be left behind or forgotten after returning from the wars they were sent to fight.
“I’ve been struck by those who serve very ably in service to our country, who go through experiences most of us couldn’t even imagine,” Cornyn said. “They come back either with physical or mental wounds associated with that service. When they take that uniform off, even though our veteran community tries and our veterans’ health care system tries, many of them feel isolated and alone. What happens too often is many of them become anxious or depressed and self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, and that just compounds the problem and makes it worse.”
The VETS Court program alleviates those problems by getting to the root of a veteran’s issues, he said. “We will leave no veteran behind, and that is an important message. I don’t know of any military community that supports our men and women in uniform more than the Fort Hood community here in Central Texas — it really is a remarkable thing.”
Cornyn said there is nothing more powerful than a good idea unless it’s the power of a good example, something the program exemplifies.
“So much of what we have to do to continue to help all of our veterans is to make sure they know that we love them,” he said. “We have a moral obligation to (them) and it is a sacred commitment we will never forget.”
The help of multiple agencies in ensuring the program works means the Fort Hood community will leave no veteran behind, Robinson said.
“Ultimately, the goal of our program is recovery,” he said. “We hope to steer the veteran back onto the right track. We try to reignite the courage, the honor, the sense of purpose our veterans had when they were in the service. We do all of that so our veterans are well-equipped to handle life’s challenges when they graduate our program.”
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