Special veteran's court gives veterans second chances

11:25 PM, Dec 1, 2010   |    comments
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"James" asked us not to reveal his real name.

"I wanted to get out and do something more meaningful with my life," he said about joining the Army 10 years ago.

"Right around the time 9/11 happened, I saw it as a good opportunity of serving my country in a time of war," he said.

James became a specialist E4 based in Germany. He served in Kosovo from 2002 to 2003 and Iraq from 2004 to 2005 at FOB Warhorse.

"Just rolling out of the gate every day, three missions a day, conducting combat operations, not knowing where the next bullet or bomb will come from," James said. "Sooner or later you become numb to the idea that at any given second you can have your head blown off. That kind of stress does take a toll."

In 2005, James left the Army. He says he was physically unscathed, but was self-medicating with alcohol.

"I was dealing with a lot of anger issues and I didn't think there was anything wrong with me," he said. "I just generally didn't see the need to go seek treatment. I didn't think that I had post traumatic stress disorder."

That was until October 2009, when the war vet found himself in a jail cell in New Mexico. He was accused of taking a police officer's baton and striking the officer several times with it.

"I don't remember any of it," James said.

Cases like James' are common in the Colorado Springs courtroom of Judge Ronald Crowder.

The retired two-star general volunteers his court room every Thursday for what's called Veteran Trauma Court, a first in the state.

"I do it because I was a soldier and I really feel empathy for these guys and girls as well, and it's the right thing to do for people who have been hurt going in harms way for their country," Crowder said.

"Some of the vets coming back from Iraq, Afghanistan, some of the crimes that are being committed are sort of random and just don't make sense," Senior Deputy District Attorney for El Paso and Teller Counties Jeff Lindsey said. "They are not typical defendants, they don't have histories. They haven't been in trouble before."

From December 2009 through September 2010, the El Paso Criminal Justice Center booked 19,679 inmates. Of them, 2,395 were active or discharged veterans.

Veteran Trauma Court has been able to work on the cases of more than 40 veterans in this first trial year. It deals with discharged and active duty vets.

The court typically takes cases that will result in probation for assaults, forgery, ID theft, drugs and some domestic violence cases. The court does not accept sex offenses, or crimes involving guns.

"We're careful about the cases we take into veteran's court." Lindsey said. "If there's people who need to stay in jail or deserve to go to prison for the crimes that they've committed, that's what's happening to them."

As a deputy DA, Lindsey is used to recommending punishments for crimes. In veteran's court, he plays a slightly different role.

"We try to get them out of jail, out of prison, if possible, get them the treatment that they need and I think, in some respects, deserve for what they've done for the country," he said.

In order to make this court work, the judge, the DA and the public defender all have to be on the same team. It's a rare partnership.

"It's totally different," Deputy State Public Defender Sheilah McAteer said. "It's kind of nice, you know? It doesn't ever happen. We pick up the phone and we're on the same page. We're both trying to achieve the same goal and that is to make these soldiers healthy, to make sure they don't re-offend. None of us want them to re-offend."

The court is time consuming. Vets have to report back every month or so in the beginning of their probation.

"The advantage of all that they're not spiraling out of control and greatly reducing recidivism rate," Crowder said.

There are those who would like to see the court handle more cases, and more serious charges. Lindsey and McAteer say they have to start small to get their bearings.

"I would like to see the program expanded that more soldiers are eligible for the program," McAteer said. "For us to really start to test the waters and to take some more serious criminal offense, you can show that, but for the fact they went to combat, they would've never been in trouble."

"It's not a lot," Lindsey said, "and one of the things we've struggled with is identifying the people that need to be in veteran's court."

He says there is a stigma to the mental health issues that some of these veteran's have, and people who need help don't always step forward because of that stigma. This makes it hard for the court to identify the people who need help.

Most of the active duty veterans go through county court that deals with domestic violence, DUI and speeding cases. Lindsey says his office is working to expand Veteran Trauma Court into the county court next year.

James will not be able to use veteran's court. The county handling his case in New Mexico doesn't have it.

"This entire incident has been life changing for me," he said.

New Mexico did receive the same federal grant that's paying for the program in Colorado. In October 2008, the Colorado Department of Human Services received a $2 million grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration. The money for the Colorado Springs program will run out next year.

In James' case, a veteran justice outreach specialist from the Albuquerque veteran's affairs hospital called the county VA clinic where James was being held. After a jail visit, a clinician determined James had symptoms of PTSD and arranged for him to get medication and treatment.

While James is out on bond waiting for his next legal step, he says he's found a new meaning in life. He's a full-time student at a college in Denver. He doesn't drink anymore and is undergoing counseling for PTSD.

"It has not been an easy thing to deal with the legal issues and try to concentrate on rehabilitation at the veteran's hospital, and to also focus on being a straight-A student," James said.

"My aspirations are to be a photojournalist or a writer," James said. "I just want to be known between my friends and family, 'Here's a guy who took a second chance when he was at the bottom of the barrel and really pulled himself up.'"

(KUSA-TV © 2010 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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