MilitaryTimes: Vet court advocates: 2nd chances save lives
After having his separation date extended under the military’s “stop-loss” policy during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, former Marine Corps Sgt. Tim Wynn spent several months in the gunners’ turret of a soft-skinned Humvee, riding around Baghdad and central Iraq providing security for convoys.
Then, in a jarring transition that lasted just a few days, he returned to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, got his military discharge papers and drove back to his home in northeastern Philadelphia.
On his first night there, he got into a bar fight — “I exploded,” is how he described it in an interview — and ended up in handcuffs.
It was the start of a decade adrift. Wynn drank too much, became addicted to cocaine, racked up 19 arrests, suffered from post-traumatic stress and thought often about suicide.
But his life turned around in 2013 after yet another arrest, this one for assault, led him to a court-appointed attorney who got him out of the traditional criminal justice system and into Philadelphia’s startup Veterans Treatment Court.
“I wasn’t just another number on the docket,” the former Marine said. “The whole court staff knew my name after meeting me only once. That’s when I realized, OK, these guys are here to help me.”
Wynn is one of thousands of veterans removed from the daily grind of the U.S. court system to receive treatment and support in specialized courts. Staffed by professionals who understand veterans’ issues, the courts offer troubled vets an opportunity to have criminal charges dismissed upon successful completion of drug treatment and mental health care programs.
Advocates say about 11,000 former service members now have cases pending in Veterans Treatment Courts, which have expanded nationwide since the first one launched in Buffalo, New York, in 2008. They have grown along with other similar specialized courts for drug treatment and mental health treatment, alongside a broader criminal justice reform effort.
“I think we are at a tipping point because these courts are working and nothing can beat success. These are veterans who are receiving life-saving treatment and who are coming back into our community to lead productive lives,” said Melissa Fitzgerald, senior director for Justice for Vets, a nonprofit group that advocates and provides funding and training for Veterans Treatment Courts.
But, she added, “Right now funding is a very, very major issue for us.”
That’s why Justice for Vets helped organize an aggressive push on Capitol Hill on July 29, when hundreds of veterans, judges, lawyers and others went door to door urging lawmakers to allocate a small sliver of the federal budget to further expand the program nationwide.
Specifically, the Justice Department this year doled out about $5 million in grants to local jurisdictions to fund additional courthouse and support staff for Veterans Treatment Courts. Advocates are seeking $15 million in 2016, money that will help fund the training and additional staff that local governments need to launch the program, Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald and others say funding the courts saves taxpayers money in the long run by keeping veterans out of the criminal justice system and costly social service networks.
The concept has strong backing of Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald. He’s declared an ambitious goal of ending veterans’ homelessness nationwide and he says veterans courts are central to that mission.
“There is an inextricable link between criminal justice involvement and homelessness. We need to give veterans an off-ramp from that inextricable link,” McDonald told hundreds of attorneys and advocates at a Veterans Treatment Court conference near Washington, D.C., on July 27.
He also said the veterans courts can help provide vital services to the 15 percent of vets who did not receive an honorable discharge and thus are ineligible for all VA benefits.
Wynn, 35, is today a married father of two who has learned to manage his PTSD. He said the most important thing his Veterans Treatment Court gave him was a social network of fellow veterans and mental health care from professionals who fully understood his experience.
“Nothing worked for me the way being around veterans did,” he said. “Just being able to get things off my chest and not sound crazy … it’s amazing what that does for you.”
And he’s paying it back; he has has a full-time job with the Philadelphia Department of Health, counseling troubled veterans who face the same problems and struggles that he has gone through.
He said he believes Veterans Treatment Courts play a role in helping to prevent veteran suicides, estimated to number as many as 22 a day.
“Most of the guys who come through veterans court are so grateful for that arrest — because they didn’t up being one of the 22.”