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SPOKANE, Wash. — With thinning gray hair and intense eyes, Spokane County District Court Judge Vance Peterson presides over his court with a sense of humor and sometimes a hard edge.
It’s been hard-won.
The judge — lauded for founding a local court to help veterans caught in legal troubles following their return to the States — didn’t expect such a personal struggle readjusting to civilian life after he returned late last year from serving eight months as a U.S. military adviser in Afghanistan.
“I thought I could simply take off my Army boots and put on my robe and go back to work,” said the retired Green Beret and Washington Army National Guard lieutenant colonel. “But nobody is Superman. I will never look at things the same.”
Beset occasionally by the same confusion and anger described by many troops returning from wars in the Middle East, Peterson said he has a fuller appreciation not only of the sacrifices of those men and women but also the challenges of returning to what most people consider normalcy.
“I appreciate the good things that happen to me even more,” he said.
One of those good things will occur Friday when the Washington State Bar Association presents Peterson, 60, with its annual Local Hero Award.
The nominating committee discussed several candidates, but Peterson — and the tale of his two careers — was an easy selection, said Deputy Spokane County Prosecutor Tony Hazel, who served on the committee.
“Based on his extensive service both on the bench to the criminal justice system, as well as to our country in his service over in Afghanistan, he was clearly deserving of this award,” Hazel said.
In addition to his 22 years on the bench, Peterson in 2010 helped develop the local veterans court, where some veteran offenders are allowed to take part in counseling, job-skills training and mentoring designed to help them re-assimilate into society and avoid future legal problems.
“We started noticing a pattern of guys without much criminal history getting into trouble” Peterson said. “And they all had recently served in Afghanistan or Iraq.”
He started researching programs started in Buffalo, N.Y., and Orange County, Calif., and copied those models to create a similar court in Spokane County. It started with a volunteer prosecutor and defense attorney and eventually won a $1?million grant in 2011 to fund the court for three years.
Remarkably, statistics show all but one of the offenders accepted into the program since its inception have remained out of trouble, which shows how effective the program has become, said Jack Driscoll, chief criminal deputy Spokane County prosecutor.
Peterson’s personal experience gives him credibility with offenders in the program, Driscoll said.
“Most people haven’t experienced anything close to what veterans in combat have gone through,” Driscoll said. “It is nice to have a judge who has been through those same circumstances and can send them to the appropriate places.”
“I have been blessed by two really good careers,” Peterson said. “A lot of guys don’t have that opportunity.”
Peterson started his Army career in 1975 and earned his Special Forces certification in 1979 — the same year he left active duty and began studying law at Gonzaga University.
He entered private practice in 1982 while continuing to serve several three-week tours annually with the Washington Army National Guard.
Those in the Special Forces have two main roles: direct action and advising.
“Basically, we are teachers,” Peterson said.
During his time in the Special Forces, Peterson advised military units from Ecuador, El Salvador, Venezuela, Panama, Thailand and South Korea. Now, he can add Afghanistan to that list.
He reached mandatory retirement in 2003 as a lieutenant colonel after serving 28 years with the Army and National Guard.
His latest war zone foray presented itself at an unlikely place.
Two years ago, while visiting his daughter and son-in-law at a neighborhood poker party in Virginia, one of their neighbors learned Peterson was both a judge and a Green Beret. Later, that neighbor — also a colonel — called Peterson and asked if he wanted to go to Afghanistan for a year to serve as a military adviser.
“Would I go? Yeah. Would I like to go? I’d like to go to Costa Rica or Hawaii,” Peterson quipped.
Eventually, Peterson agreed to be recalled back to active military service, triggering a round of physical training, weapons refresher courses and planning that eventually had him on a plane to Mazar-e-Sharif in the northernmost province of Afghanistan.
“I could have turned it down, I suppose,” he said. “I was honored that they called me and thought I could contribute.
“What a ride,” he said, eyes wide.
Peterson was part of the Guard’s mission of providing assistance to an Afghan paramilitary police force in Mazar-e-Sharif, a city of about 360,000 residents. In his role as adviser, he helped coordinate intelligence and operations on drug sweeps, roadblocks and other functions.
“I was not prepared for the extreme poverty. They were living in mud huts,” Peterson said. “People were living really close to the edge. It’s a hard country to be a lawyer. It’s hard country to be a camel herder.”
While he said he never felt he was in danger, Peterson was assigned to investigate the April 4, 2012, bombing in Maimana, Afghanistan, that killed three American soldiers and wounded five more.
A Pakistani man had slipped into Afghanistan and made it to a safe house in Maimana, where he obtained a vest made of high explosives and ball bearings dipped in rat poison. The bomber targeted the provincial governor or the local police chief but neither presented themselves, Peterson said.
The bomber learned that American troops were handing out radios at a local park. He walked up to them and detonated the vest. Peterson said he saw photographs depicting the bomber’s severed lower legs, which remained standing following the blast.
“The guys did everything they were supposed to do,” Peterson said of the troops. “It was just war.”
While visiting another base, a suspected rocket-propelled grenade blew up a fuel truck at the base entrance some 400 yards away from where Peterson was smoking a cigar with his cohorts.
Outside the population centers, many Afghan residents live in remote villages led by chiefs who have an average third-grade education level, the judge said. When troops approached one village, the chief asked if the Russians — who left the country 24 years ago — had arrived, Peterson said.
Still, “I think we planted a seed. The party line was we moved the ball down the field,” he said. “The only way Afghanistan is going to change is if they want to change.”
His tour ended in September, effectively ending his military career.
“The only way they can call me back is to court-martial me,” Peterson said, smiling.
He said of his experience, “The best thing was working with all these young people. Once they stepped outside the wire, they performed exactly like their fathers did in Vietnam and grandfathers did in Korea and World War II. It restores my faith in the entire system.”
Peterson returned home in September.
“I thought I could easily walk back into Spokane and be what I was before,” he said of his transition. “We did get some debriefing. They told us we would be angry when you get back. I was. We weren’t as effective as we could have been. Everybody wanted to do more.”
Once home, Peterson found he had trouble sleeping.
“I didn’t want to be around large groups of people,” he said. “If you see a car parked on the side of the road, you don’t want to go near it because it’s obviously a bomb.”
In Afghanistan, convoys traveled in formation and the troops wouldn’t let Peterson drive the big, armored trucks.
“I didn’t drive for a year,” he said. “When I get here, the streets were just chaos.”
He used a combination of leave and vacation days and didn’t return to work until December.
“It does take a lot more time to transition back to a normal way of life,” he said. “But it’s a different normal.”
The judge hopes to serve one more term on the bench before ending his second career.
“I only have so many years left,” he said. “This last year enhanced any remaining time I’ve got.”