FORT HOOD — Carlos Fields served 15 years with multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan before being honorably discharged as a noncommissioned officer.
“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.”
On Friday, a proud and smiling Fields graduated from Veterans Endeavor for Treatment and Support Court. A year and a half ago, the program did not exist.
Capt. Patrick Robinson had seen programs in state courts helping veterans stay out of the judicial system for misdemeanors by instead getting them the mental help they needed to recover from military and combat-related stress. He felt the program would be beneficial to Fort Hood.
So Robinson, the federal prosecutor for the Fort Hood judge advocate general’s office, pitched the idea to U.S. Federal Magistrate Judge Jeffrey Manske, and VETS Court was instituted to help struggling veterans who get into trouble while on post.
At the III Corps headquarters building Friday, the first three veterans graduated after a year of counseling, alcohol-abuse treatment and peer mentoring.
The program is the first federal veterans treatment court operating on a U.S. military installation. It allows veterans suffering from the psychological effects of their military service to get the treatment they need to become productive members of society again.
“Prosecutors are called upon to do justice. We do our best to make decisions to reduce, or prevent, future crime,” Robinson said. “Whenever we’re evaluating cases, we look at a wide variety of characteristics. We look at the background of the defendants who come into our court. We look at the offense itself, and the motive or lack thereof.”
Robinson said that prosecutors try to match the input about the offender and offense to achieve justice.
An example he gave — of a veteran being pulled over for driving under the influence — helped him see that justice, Robinson said.
“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.”
The veteran also served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Robinson said. “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 finds that the veteran is struggling with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress, and the alcohol use is 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 right, he said.
“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 said. “You have an opportunity to bring together a community around these veterans.”
The veteran Robinson spoke of was Fields, a Killeen resident who was one of the first graduates of the program.
“Transitioning from the military can be a difficult phase of life for some veterans,” Fields said.
Losing the stability of a steady income, guaranteed health care, housing and more can be very daunting, he said.
“During this time of uncertainty, some of us lose our way. This is the struggle I went through,” Fields said.
He called the yearlong VETS Court program a blessing.
“My mentor, Bill (Barker), was always there to give me guidance and support when I needed it,” Fields said.
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 pain associated with their service.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who provided the commencement speech, said the judicial system has a need to give a second chance to those who truly deserve the opportunity.
“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,” Cornyn said, adding that the program 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 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.”
While one of the three graduating veterans asked not to take part in the ceremony for privacy reasons, another 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,” said Killeen resident Lindsey Jones. “A little over a year ago today, I was at a major ‘stuck’ point in my life. 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. She said she just knew it was a door God had opened for her and an opportunity to turn her life around with a team of people who cared enough to help her along the way.
“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.
Jones has gone back to school and has maintained a 3.5 GPA while finishing her degree in business management.
“I have formed so many positive relationships with so many incredible people because of this program,” she said. “I’m extremely happy with where and who I am today. 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.”
AT A GLANCE
The Veterans Endeavor for Treatment and Support Court program at Fort Hood is supported by at least 16 organizations:
Justice for Vets
The National Association of Drug Court Professionals
The Central Texas Area Veterans Advisory Committee
The Fort Hood Retirees Council
The Bell County Veterans Treatment Court
The Williamson County Veterans Treatment Court
The Travis County Veterans Treatment Court
The Texas Veterans Commission
Workforce Solutions of Central Texas
Bring Everyone in the Zone
The Military Veteran Peer network
Ross Department Stores (for hiring veterans in the program)
U.S. District Courts, Western District of Texas
U.S. Pretrial Services, Western District of Texas
Department of Veterans Affairs, Central Texas Healthcare System
U.S. Attorney’s Office, Western District of Texas