Andrew Armstrong recently graduated from the Veterans Treatment Court in Mansfield. The 27-year-old U.S. Marine sergeant started his military training in 2007 and served in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011. His life changed when he came back home. He became depressed and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Two years later in 2013, Armstrong got in trouble with the law when he shot a gun and threatened suicide. He got help, though, thanks to the Veterans Treatment Court, led by Judge Jerry Ault at Mansfield Municipal Court.
“While in the program, they focused on keeping me in line and on the right track to getting back to where I should be – not only in life, but as a person as well,” Armstrong said. “It opened my eyes to the fact that I am not alone, but that people before me, as well as after, have succeeded in coping and getting on with this new life.”
For Armstrong, the program transformed his future. To help determine whether Veterans Treatment Court is successful for a majority of military personnel like Armstrong, Mansfield Municipal Court recently took part in a study.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration gave a grant to Kraig Knudsen and Scott Wingenfeld so the two could evaluate the effectiveness of Veterans Treatment Courts. The two work at the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services in Columbus.
Veterans Treatment Courts in Mansfield and Hamilton County Municipal Court in Cincinnati participated in the study.
The study followed about 90 veterans to examine the efficacy of the courts. Knudsen and Wingenfeld wanted to see if the specialized docket court improved jail recidivism, depression, quality of life, and recovery for the veterans. The participants, who ranged in age from 21 to 73, were interviewed at the beginning of treatment and then again at six months and 12 months into the program.
Knudsen said he was surprised by the overwhelmingly positive results. Of the 86 veterans, only nine veterans were rearrested during the 12-month study and four were arrested after the program.
“When factoring in overall functioning, the results were equally impressive,” Knudsen said. “Only 10 percent were re-arrested, 21 percent gained full-time employment during the program, 31 percent went from living in unstable housing situations to stable housing, and 16 percent enrolled in school or training programs.”
Knudsen also noted that the veterans’ mental health improved greatly.
“The mental health treatment was so successful that while all participants started the program meeting diagnostic criteria for PTSD, only 25 percent exiting the program did,” Knudsen said.
The study stated that 200,000 veterans are in U.S. jails or prison, which is about 10 percent of the total inmate population, and that 18 percent of veterans experience some type of PTSD and depression symptoms.
Knudsen said the pilot study “grew out of a need to understand whether implementing the treatment court would result in improved quality of life and treatment outcomes.”
“This program provided the support they needed to recover, rehabilitate, and become productive again,” Knudsen said. “Veterans often feel very isolated when being re-integrated into civilian life, and the peer mentors provided guidance, social connections, and hope for these individuals.”
The Ohio Supreme Court has 17 Veterans Treatment Courts across Ohio in the certification process. Michele Worobiec, specialized dockets counsel with the Supreme Court, said the study is an “important first step in providing data that substantiates the success of these dockets.”
“A Veterans Treatment Court understands the way justice-involved veterans struggle with issues such as substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and military sexual trauma,” Worobiec said. “We look forward to learning more about how veterans courts can continue to serve as an effective resource.”
Judge Ault started Mansfield’s veterans court – the first of its kind in Ohio – in 2009. He said one reason why the program is so successful is because all team members are involved in trying to help get the veterans back on their feet. The treatment team consists of attorneys, probation officers, mentors, and local health organizations.
“We rely heavily on our assessment/evaluation process and our treatment team to establish a treatment plan that is best for the individual,” Judge Ault said. “[The veterans] understand we want to help them but there is a significant commitment on their part, so the decision to make a positive change in their lives must be their choice.”
Army vet Daron Minard, 44, went through Judge Ault’s Veterans Treatment Court after he drove while under a DUI suspension. He also participated in Knudsen’s study. When Minard graduated from the program, he said it was his probation officer who helped him want to get his life back on track.
“He spent countless hours being in my corner guiding me, talking to me,” Minard said. “I can honestly say I have never had a man in my life that took the time to care about what was really happening and going on, to listen and to understand.”
The veterans in Mansfield are also paired up with mentors during their time in treatment court. Established in July 2011, the Veteran Mentoring Program teams up the veteran going through the court system with another vet who knows what they are going through, creating a support system, Judge Ault said.
“Mentors have created pseudo unity and act as the veteran participant’s mentor, cheerleader, and advocate,” said Lorie Fourhman, the mentor coordinator in Mansfield Municipal Court. “The bond is unique, healing, and strengthening for both the veteran mentor and the participant, and has a positive, supportive impact on the veteran participant’s time with the court.”
And that support of mentors, probation officers, and other team members, Judge Ault said, helps the veterans thrive while participating in his treatment court.
“I think they learn we sincerely want them to be successful,” Judge Ault said. “Participants soon realize it’s not just about them. It’s about family, a decent job, and actually feeling better about themselves. Graduation is a special time for them to begin anew.”
“I have always had a special appreciation for those who serve our country and truly believe this is an opportunity for my court to contribute in a small way to a veteran who may have lost his or her way,” Judge Ault added.
And that appreciation is how Armstrong got out of the court system and into the classroom. He already received his associate’s degree with the intention of obtaining a master’s degree and specializing in PTSD. He’d like to get a job in a local Veterans Affairs clinic and continue to help other veterans as they struggle to adapt.
He’s on the right path. Armstrong became so invested in his treatment program that he became a mentor with Judge Ault’s program this year.
“Having now graduated from the program, I find myself as one of the mentors for the other veterans and only hope to do the same for them,” Armstrong said. “People make mistakes, and every person needs different ways in which to get through to them. The program provided me with many tools and people which I could turn to in time of need, which sometimes can make the world of difference to an individual just knowing someone is there.”