By the Veterans Treatment Court Team and Legal Intern Ellen Patterson
It’s hard to believe that this historical method commonly used to bring military units to attention is now being used by the Bexar County Veterans Treatment Court (VTC) to start their monthly docket-calls. Presiding Judge Wayne Christian served for 30 years in Airborne and Special Operations assignments in the active and reserve U.S. Army, retiring at the rank of Colonel. Like most participants in their Court, he and VTC staff members retired Army First Sergeant Victor Byrd and former Air Force Captain Mike McCollom, a licensed social worker, are all combat veterans of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The Bexar County Veterans Treatment Court was created by the Bexar County Commissioners in concert with the Criminal District Attorney’s Office in September 2010. It is unique among specialty courts in that in addition to being founded on the premise of rehabilitation instead of incarceration, the VTC is the only court in Texas specifically authorized to offer veterans Pre-Trial Diversion, insuring a successful probationer receives no conviction for his crime.
San Antonio, “Military City USA” is home to one of the largest veteran-populations in the United States. Many of our recent veterans of the Global War on Terror suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury, substance abuse and depression. They may find themselves alone in the Criminal Justice System, in need of assistance to recover from or cope with their addictions and to obtain employment and housing. Instead of going to jail, these men and women participate in counseling, therapy and rehabilitation at the Veterans Administration or The Center for Health Care Services where they get the help they need to manage past traumas, conform their behavior to societal norms, and find direction in their lives.
Our Veterans Treatment Court currently has over 125 active veteran-participants and recently celebrated its lOOth graduate. VTC participants report in front of the judge at two docket-calls per month while they are in the program. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine veterans from the Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts are called to attention, recite the Pledge of Allegiance and begin and end the docket by shouting in unison, “Leave No Veteran Behind, Sir!”
The veteran participant must comply with both treatment and court conditions over the period of a year in order to complete the four phases of the Court’s program. There are both incentives and sanctions, and with each phase completed the veteran achieves an increased amount of autonomy and independence. When the veteran reaches phase four, he/she still takes part in court-mandated treatment, but is no longer required by the Court to appear in front of the Judge for monthly docket calls. Throughout each VTC docket, the Judge addresses each veteran by his or her military rank and the veteran then moves swiftly before the bench, often shouting, “Moving, Sir!” Once standing at Parade Rest in front of the Judge, the veteran, surrounded by the VTC Team, hears their program progress announced to the Court. When queried by the Court, the Probation Officer reported of one veteran, “This veteran is off to a strong start. Very strong! She does everything I ask her to do. An outstanding veteran. She is absolutely compliant:’
After asking the veteran if there is anything else the court can help her with, the Judge concludes, “All right. Keep up the good work! Go get’em!”
The room resounds with applause from observers and other veterans waiting their turn as she returns to her seat.
Some veterans face greater challenges and may not be doing as well on their probations, yet the team approaches each with a similar positive attitude. The Probation Officer may report, “We’ve had a rough start with this veteran, but I know he will get it together,” or he may remind the veteran of the importance of returning phone calls in order to schedule appointments and track progress.
Often, a veteran will be asked by the Judge to make an impromptu address to the courtroom, sharing a personal experience from their rehabilitation in order to encourage the others to follow through with their treatment. One participant stated, “I was on a path to kill myself or someone else. Everybody fails. I failed. But it’s how you overcome that failure that counts.”
Another participant, a female combat veteran who had recently spent 28 days at an in-patient facility for alcohol rehabilitation, confidently advised the courtroom that her in-patient program had been extremely helpful and had assisted her in providing insight into her own addiction. “The team at the rehabilitation facility helped me recognize that I definitely have an alcohol-dependency problem.” she said.
Once accepted into the VTC program, a veteran-defendant, depending upon his individual type of struggle, is required to participate in counseling and classes instead of jail. These programs may include a Certified DWI Education Course and a Victim Impact Panel, where the veteran may see, in graphic detail, pictures of the tragic effects caused by drunk driving. The goal is awareness and prevention, as the impact panel helps the veteran empathize with victims of DWI-caused accidents.
Lieutenant Colonel Randy Parker, U.S. Army, Retired, currently serves as the VTC Project Director. LTC Parker explained that the Bexar County VTC is all about saving lives and restoring our veterans to a place of mental and physical health and well-being. “We have to remember that these veterans, at some point in their life, wrote a blank check payable to the United States of America for an amount up to and including their lives,” he said. “They are our brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, and neighbors. They live in our community and, for the most part, will be among us for the rest of their lives. We owe it to them to help them become productive citizens.”
The problems are real: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injuries and depression motivating combat veterans to self-medicate with alcohol and drug addiction, resulting in criminal violations, family violence, divorce and suicide. Even though the courtroom is relatively quiet, it is filled with an intense feeling of camaraderie, clearly resembling that of a military unit. While each veteran receives only a few minutes with the Judge due to the large size of the docket, many hours of dialogue and preparation by the VTC Team have occurred before the veteran’s appearance. The simple experience of being in the same room with others who are undergoing a similar plight appears to be a moving, reassuring and even nostalgic experience to these men and women. Some simply need time and a second chance. Others need more intensive interventions. All share the goal of reintegrating into society in the most productive way possible. Since its inception, the VTC has a proven track record of success. Its graduates have recidivism rates substantially lower than conventional courts. The VTC saves taxpayers money by not only negating the high cost of jail overpopulation, but additionally by creating a population of rehabilitated offenders who exhibit much lower risks of re-offending, thereby avoiding entirely the cost of re-arrest, prosecution and incarceration for future crimes.
The Veterans Treatment Court is one avenue to success for those justice-involved veterans who have honorably served our country in time of war, but now need our support for their transition back to being a law-abiding member of our society. The VTC coin, presented to each veteran upon their graduation from the program, says it best: “Courage, Honor, Justice.”
Copyrighted Material: Reprinted with permission from San Antonio Scene Magazine.
The courts in Bexar County transform lives and have an ongoing impact on its residents and the community. Go to SupportTheCourtTX.com and learn more about the courts, Judge Wayne Christian, the Republican candidates, and be an informed judicial voter.