Peer support, counseling aims to turn around lives of those who’ve served
Ryan Ellison walked to the front of the courtroom, waved a stack of wrinkled papers that proved he hadn’t missed his Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and Veterans Affairs counseling sessions, and looked up at Judge Ted Barrows.
“I’m facing the mental stuff, the pain,” Ellison told the judge. “I have a goal, and I can see the finish line now.”
Barrows smiled and gave Ellison a thumbs up. Then he said something that maybe no one has told this 31-year-old Army veteran in a very long time: “I’m proud of you. Keep it up.”
Barrows swept his hand toward the other 17 defendants in Franklin County Municipal Courtroom 12B that day, all of whom are part of the Military and Veterans’ Services specialty docket.
“Why don’t you tell them,” Barrows said, “what’s made the difference in your life.”
Ellison, a former combat engineer with the Army who did a tour in Iraq, looked at the others, a couple of whom were new to this court.
“I left the Army, and I didn’t have a job. I ‘used’ for a reason. I drank and smoked weed to push all that ugly stuff out of my head,” Ellison said. “The drugs and alcohol became my security blanket. They let me pass out so I didn’t have to think about the bad stuff.”
But he credits the team approach of the veterans court with teaching him how to be his own advocate, with putting him on the right path after drug-possession charges and two drunken-driving arrests. Now, he has full custody of his young daughter, a job and, perhaps most important, a sense of self-worth and help for his combat-induced post-traumatic stress disorder.
Including Barrows’ court, there are 17 veteran-specific courts operating in Ohio; the Ohio Supreme Court is reviewing two more for certification.
At a conference co-sponsored this month by the Ohio attorney general’s office and the Buckeye State Council of the Vietnam Veterans of America, experts said these courts are key to getting to the heart of a veteran’s issues.
Much of their success depends on peer mentoring — veterans helping veterans — and a treatment approach by teams that understand what combat veterans have seen, said Kathy Platoni, a clinical psychologist and a retired Army colonel.
“You, the veteran, have stepped out of a world where you’ve seen such inhumanity, such tragedy and human suffering. The world becomes an unsafe place because, for you, the enemy is everywhere,” Platoni told the couple of hundred conference attendees. “It’s hard to conceive of a world where there is good. Unless you have walked in those boots, you cannot fully understand what it is like to walk that walk.”
And it’s a group that for many complicated reasons often rejects support.
“We’re too proud. ‘Oh, no. Not me. I wouldn’t want anyone to know I’m weak,’ ” she said of veterans. “But the courageous thing to do is to ask for help.”
Judge Scott D. Van Der Karr started the Franklin County specialty docket court in 2012 with 34 veterans. It’s an intensive, two-year program, where the veterans report to court each Monday for the first four to six months to talk about their progress. They must attend at least two
Narcotics/Alcoholics Anonymous meetings each week, comply with drug and alcohol tests, make their VA counseling appointments and stay trouble-free.
“If they get into trouble and, say, test positive for drugs, I may throw them in jail for a few days to show them we’re not playing around and that this is serious,” said Barrows, who took over the court last year.
In the second phase of the program, the veterans must show up at court every other week. The last phase is generally focused on solid employment, family stability and community service.
Right now, Barrows has 45 veterans on the docket, including 15 who joined this year.
A little more than half of them served in the post-9/11 wars, and 44 percent are Vietnam-era. More than half are 30 or younger. Eight are women. Almost 85 percent have been dual-diagnosed with mental-health and substance-abuse issues.
Most of them landed in court on charges of domestic violence or of driving impaired. A handful have been charged with theft or drug possession.
Some veterans courts offer diversion, meaning that, if you complete the two-year program, the prosecutor dismisses, or the state might expunge, your original criminal charge. Under Ohio law, that can’t happen with drunken-driving or domestic-violence charges, though, and Barrows said that tells him the veterans in his court really want to be there to get help.
“They don’t have the same carrot to successfully finish that maybe a felon in a common pleas court would,” said Barrows, who served with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division out of Fort Bragg, N.C., in the 1960s. “They are here instead to become part of this team, to become a part of this unit, where they can form a brotherhood again and help each other through.”
The Franklin County court graduated one veteran its first year, 23 in 2014 and nine so far this year. Another 13 are expected to graduate by June.
Overall, almost 85 percent of veterans in the program — either current ones or those who have graduated — have gotten into no more trouble.
Ellison isn’t one of them. He’s been in the court system since 2012 and has slipped up a time or two. But he credits Bela Koe-Krompecher, who used to work with the court, for mentoring him. Barrows has a peer mentor program, but only six veterans volunteer right now; at least 20 are needed.
“It’s been a really rough road, readjusting to life as a civilian,” said Ellison, who lives in Victorian Village. He pushed aside all help until other veterans stepped in. He participates in veteran-centered horse therapy now and relies heavily on his counselors at the VA.
“This program could save lives. Literally,” he said. “Jail doesn’t help a veteran. It just resets our problems: our lack of sleep because of nightmares, the lights always on, living with the threat of constant threat and confrontation. We’ll never do anything but fight in an environment like that. It’s what we’re trained to do.”
He hopes to graduate from the court program in a few months. He hasn’t used drugs for two years and hasn’t had a drink since July. He raises a tattooed hand and points for emphasis as he said, “ That doesn’t sound like much to some people, but for me, that’s a really long time.”
He has an M-16 inked onto each hand: “It symbolizes my military career, my separation from the Army. I laid down my arms.”
But each gun is split in half: “I was broken.”
And he says it was all of those people who surround him each Monday in Courtroom 12B, who support him when they can and yell at him when they must, who finally convinced him he could be fixed.