At the first Williamson County Veterans Treatment Court hearing I attended in February, a young male about 25- or 30-years-old stood slouched, arms at his sides and with defiance in his eyes, before Judge Laura Barker.
I watched her demeanor change quickly as he approached the bench. Speaking in a sterner but still warm voice, she admonished him to show respect for the court. Immediately, he straightened up, clasped both hands behind his back, military-style, and his defiant look softened.
Fast forward to May 2, when I attended a commencement ceremony for graduates of this court’s 12-month program. The three young men who were graduating exhibited humility, respect and determination to continue improving their lives and using the coping skills for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) the program had taught them. They told their stories to a roomful of their peers, families, friends and strangers at the County Court No. 2 in the Justice Center in Georgetown.
In 2009, the Texas Legislature passed a law authorizing the creation of veterans courts to help veterans whose criminal charges could be connected to their military service. In 2015, Williamson County began a veterans court that works collaboratively with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and other veteran and community organizations to provide a program that helps veterans “return to the lives they fought to protect,” as stated by the organization Justice for Vets, while reducing recidivism and improving public safety. The VA in Texas reported that Central Texas veterans courts have a high success rate, which often brings recidivism rates down to single digits.
“The Veterans Court is not a punitive court. It’s not a ‘gotcha’ court,” said Polly Robertson, a Veterans Justice Outreach Specialist with the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System, who performs veterans outreach in a 13-county area. Within this area, only Williamson and Bell counties have veterans courts. The clinical social worker serves as an advocate for veterans, the VA and the court system. She’s been working with the veterans court in Williamson County since 2014.
“There is an adjustment for service members when returning from combat,” said Ms. Robertson. “When veterans experience a trigger that brings about a PTSD episode, they may drink to self-medicate, and then they get DWIs.”
Justice for Vets reported that one in six veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffers from a substance abuse issue and one in five suffers from PTSD. Sometimes these problems contribute to disruptive and criminal behavior among a substantial number of veterans. An estimated 320,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffer from traumatic brain injury.
When veterans are arrested in Williamson County, Jonathan Lemuel, director of Jail Diversions, can refer them to veterans court, as can their arresting officer or personal attorney. Most veterans in the program are arrested for misdemeanors, which are mainly DWIs. Participants of the program don’t have to be combat veterans or reside in the same county that operates the veterans court, but their counties of residence must approve their participation in this specialty court. Veterans must also meet eligibility requirements for the court by undergoing a mental health diagnosis from a credentialed organization or specialist.
Criminal Court Prosecutor, Matthew Watkins, in the Williamson County Attorney’s Office, then reviews each case to determine if the applicant is acceptable for this court. Once a veteran is accepted, individualized treatment plans are created to meet the veteran’s needs as there is no one-size-fits-all program. Veterans are assessed by the VA or a local mental health professional to determine not only if they need substance abuse and mental health counseling, but to determine if they qualify for disability compensation, a pension, educational benefits, vocational training, housing and medical services. Every veteran must report to court for progress hearings twice a month the first two-thirds of the program, then once a month until graduation.
The veterans court functions as a team, consisting of 10 staff members, including Judge Barker, plus additional veteran volunteers. If any veterans are not making their regular court appointments for lack of money, members or volunteers can assist. They might refer them to Donna Harrell, director of the Williamson County Veterans Services, who will scour the area for assistance, like a gas card, to make sure those veterans can get to their appointments.
“Our responsibility as part of the veterans court is to ensure that all the veterans have adequate representation and assistance regarding their benefits with the Department of Veterans Affairs,” said Ms. Harrell. “Some have not filed a claim and need to, or need to file for an upgrade in their claims. That is what our office does—assist the veterans in facilitating that action. We can also check on the status of pending claims and answer any questions regarding their veterans benefits.”
The Williamson County Veterans Court is funded by a grant from the Office of the Governor through their Criminal Justice Division, and according to Mr. Watkins, Williamson county is seeking alternative grant funding sources to aid our veterans’ navigation to a better life. He explained that “the best part of my job is being able to see the transformation veterans can go through in 12 months, and the rightfully-earned pride and happiness they show upon successfully conquering their goals, both in the court and beyond.”
One of the program participants I had the privilege of meeting and talking to at the graduation was Marcus Sullen, who had served in the Army for seven years. His base was hit by mortar attacks, and he was knocked unconscious by a blast while on a convoy driving through the streets of Iraq.
Marcus received a DWI six months ago.
He called the veterans treatment program “tough,” and said it involved “lots of counseling. It’s a recovery plan.”
Part of the program requires him to visit psychiatric doctors at the VA Outpatient Clinic in Austin. The married father of three said that the program offers different tools to deal with alcoholism. He gets injections at the clinic to reduce alcohol cravings. He’s learning to stay away from triggers, and said that help is always available from anyone associated with the court.
“Alcohol is the way many of us deal with issues and what we’ve gone through,” he said. “You drink to forget, or you drink to calm down.”
He finishes the program on November 21. His long-term goal is to stay sober and improve his life through school. He is enrolled in a welding technology program at Austin Community College.
Veterans in this court also receive help from fellow veterans through the Military Veteran Peer Network who support, encourage and assist them in navigating VA and local services. One of these was Jay Huot, who had just graduated from the program. Mr. Huot said the program helped him deal with anger. He learned that he has other emotions in his “tool bag’ and not just anger. He also learned not to react without thinking. Mr. Huot suffers from PTSD after serving eight and a half years in Bosnia. His camp was attacked in 1999, and he was shot at, but was physically unscathed. His sense of well-being, however, was damaged. The 39-year-old is married and has two children.
“The best part of the program was connecting with fellow veterans and feeling support from probation officers, Polly and everyone involved,” he said. “Everyone was accepting and willing to help. This really is a second chance.”
The enthusiastic veteran added that his goal is now completed. When asked how the program helped him, he said that he used to stay in his room and not talk to anyone. He was isolated. Now Mr. Huot wants to be more approachable and enjoy spending more time with his family.
His parting words were: “This program was a great experience; 2016 was my worse year and 2017 will be the best year of my life.”
After the moving ceremony, I spoke to Judge Barker, one of our hardest working judges, whose concern for every veteran who enters the program cannot be overstated. “I’m truly honored to be a part of the Williamson County DWI/Drug Court Program and the Veterans Treatment Court,” said Judge Barker. “Both courts provide our participants a way to become more productive members of our community and to become better friends, parents, siblings and spouses. I’m truly overwhelmed by the commitment that I see from the staff on both teams and from so many others in the community dedicated to our specialty courts. Our courts are providing individuals the opportunity to change their lives through intervention, focused treatment and rehabilitation.”
For information on the Williamson County Veterans Court:
Joseph Marcee, Attorney
Williamson County Veterans Court Coordinator