Since the Vietnam era, America has been in a near constant state of war. From the swamps of South Asia to the sands of Afghanistan, young men and young women have volunteered themselves to the service of this country, often in the face of unimaginable horror.
In the best cases, soldiers return forever changed. In other cases, scars (both physical and emotional) run deeper. Some never truly heal.
According to think-tank The RAND Foundation, approximately 20 percent of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. If Traumatic Brain Injuries are included, the number is even higher.
Consequently, the countries judicial system has seen an influx of cases, both large and small, involving veterans. About eight years ago, a local judge, carrying the germ of an idea he heard about in passing, decided to do something about it.
Birth of a Court
Started in Tucson in 2009 by judge Michael Pollard, the Pima County Regional Veterans Treatment Court, or Vet Court, first heard only cases within the jurisdiction of the city of Tucson.
Held at Tucson City Court, Vet Court convenes every other Tuesday and Wednesday. Cases and follow-ups are usually held on Tuesdays, while new cases are heard on Wednesdays said Pollard, who presides over each case.
“We have about 60 to 80 folks in the program at any given time,” Pollard said. “Generally, we hear about 20-30 cases on a Tuesday, and about that many again Wednesday.”
Project coordinator Cassondra Sepulveda explained that many program participants are not what people expect.
“A lot of times, this is the first time some of these guys have been through formal court proceedings,” she said. “The process can be confusing or overwhelming for anyone.”
Entering the program can happen in a variety of ways. On the city side, arresting officers and court clerks can note a veterans’ prior service.
“For our program, if they just served a day or even with a dishonorable discharge, they are eligible,” Sepulveda said.
The Veterans Administration, along with partners La Frontera Arizona and Old Pueblo Community Services also refer clients who may be eligible for Vet Court.
There are limitations. If the current case is a felony, or if there are unresolved felonies on a veteran’s record, they are ineligible. Other prior offenses could also be disqualifying. Driving Under the Influence cases are eligible, but only after entering a “guilty” plea.
“The other thing is, this program is only for those who want to participate,” Sepulveda said. “It’s a non-coercive program.”
With a duration of (usually) six months, the goal of the program is to help veterans get back on their feet.
Two grants from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association allowed for Veterans Court to expand county-wide, to include the municipalities of Oro Valley, Marana, Sahuarita and South Tucson in 2013.
Oro Valley Town Magistrate George Dunscomb credited Pollard with championing the expansion of the court. After Dunscomb explained that it would not be practical, eventually a contract was worked out to allow for cases that qualified to be transferred to Veteran’s Court. Similar agreements now exist with the other major municipalities in the county.
The SAMSHA grants also allowed Vet Court to provide mental health and lifestyle resources to veterans who separated from the military with anything less than an honorable discharge. Only honorably discharged veterans are eligible for Veterans Administration benefits.
Once qualified, participants agree to personalized counseling, an attendance-tracked diversion class, and mandatory meetings with a court-appointed mentor. These resources provide both an outlet for veterans and a way to keep tabs on their progress, Sepulveda said.
“We do require sobriety throughout the process,” she said. “No alcohol or drug use is allowed.”
Even with the at-will nature of Vet Court, the recidivism rate among program participants is 17 percent, according to data from the county. That’s considerably lower than the state average, which the Pew Research Center put at 39 percent.
Warrior Mentality: Mentors and Lawyers
Part of that success Pollard credits to the courts expanded mentor program. Sponsored by non-profits La Frontera and Old Pueblo Community Services, the program is another result of expansion made possible by SAMSHA grants. Veterans going through Vet Court are paired with a mentor. Although all mentors are volunteers, unlike most diversion programs, potential mentors must have served in the armed forces.
“The military changes people, you get used to a regiment, to a way of doing things,” Pollard said. “When you introduce someone who will hold them accountable, who has that same warrior mentality, you see the training come back.”
Often, mentors and participating veterans become close friends, with mentors attending the participants “graduation ceremony” from the program.
Those sort of relationships, Pollard noted, were a struggle for public defenders to create with veterans. That all changed after a meeting with a few University of Arizona law school students.
“Three law students, two marines and an army vet, came to me and said, ‘This is something we can do,’” Pollard said. “Right away I could see the response the vets had working with someone who could relate to those experiences.”
The UA’s James E. Rogers School of Law Veterans’ Advocacy Law Clinic helps represent veterans who can’t afford counsel go before the court. That totals about “99 percent” of cases, said Kristine Huskey, attorney and director of the clinic.
The Finish Line
The court website defines a program success as a participating veteran, “moving toward self-sufficiency and permanently enhancing their ability to lead an independent, law-abiding and employed lifestyle.”
Sepulveda believes the court’s mission is simpler. “The end goal is to have these veterans walk out of here better than they came in.”
As the presiding judge, Pollard takes the long view of Vet Court and the effects it has on veteran’s lives, as well as the lives of many soldiers who are still active duty.
During last month’s graduation ceremony, Pollard introduced himself and congratulated a younger-looking graduate. “He told me he was active duty, and that in a week he was heading back for his fifth tour in Afghanistan,” Pollard said.
“It just goes to show what dedicated young men and women we have in our armed services. That’s why this court is important.”
Eddie Celaya is a Tucson Local Media intern pursuing a degree in journalism and history from the University of Arizona