Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has made transition issues of troops moving from active duty to veteran status one of his priorities. (Colin Kelly/Staff)
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Richard Sandoval joined the Marine Corps in 2003 to flee a childhood on the Miracle Mile in Tucson, Ariz., a violent strip of seedy motels, topless bars and dingy street corners where his father pedaled drugs for a cartel.
As an infantryman with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, Sandoval, 29, fought in the bloody second Battle of Fallujah in 2004 and returned later to the same region for another combat tour.
When his enlistment ended in 2007, he went home. And his troubles began.
He started drinking heavily. In one weekend, he trashed 14 cars — either for fun or out of rage, he has no idea; he can’t remember doing it. He was arrested for other offenses ranging from disorderly conduct to DUI, once topping more than twice the legal limit on a breathalyzer.
By the time Sandoval landed in Tucson’s Veterans Court in 2011, he was looking for a way out.
“I was a mess. I’ve been diagnosed with childhood PTSD and between that and Phantom Fury” — the operational name of the second Battle of Fallujah — “it caught up with me,” Sandoval said.
The Tucson court drew Sandoval with its promise that his charges would be dismissed if he finished the program. He said he stuck with it after realizing it would transform his life.
Today, Sandoval is a mentor coordinator for the very court that gave him a break — a paying job for which he is grateful. The week of Dec. 2, he was in Washington, D.C., for a conference on veterans treatment courts, learning, along with 90 other veterans, how to better assist other vets who are struggling like Sandoval once did.
Dealing with the demons
Veterans treatment courts are specialized legal programs designed to handle criminal cases — usually misdemeanors — involving veterans with service-related mental health conditions that may be a factor in their crimes.
At the first-ever Veterans Treatment Court Conference, sponsored by Justice For Vets, a division of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, 900 judicial employees, law enforcement, advocates and veterans met to confer on the challenges and benefits of such programs, which have rapidly proliferated in just a few years.
Among the perks: giving veterans like Sandoval the skills to deal with their demons and become employees companies want to hire.
“The judge helped me out more than a few times. It’s amazing what you can learn when there are people helping you,” Sandoval said.
The first veterans court was established in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008, modeled after existing drug treatment courts but tailored for combat veterans. Today there are 130 veterans courts nationwide.
Incarceration rates for veterans are less than half that of non-veterans, but a fair number of former troops are in the nation’s prisons: the Justice Department estimates 10 percent of inmates are veterans.
And the number involved in the court system is growing. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said VA “justice outreach specialists” who work with these courts assisted 36,000 vets this year, up from 5,800 in 2010.
Support from VA
Shinseki visited the Buffalo program in 2009 and threw his department’s support behind the concept. VA has hired 172 veteran justice outreach specialists and plans to hire 80 more over the next year.
Addressing attendees at the opening ceremonies of the conference on Dec. 2, Shinseki called the the need for these courts “clear, undeniable and compelling.”
“Very few veterans served by [our] specialists are first-time offenders ... 40 percent have been homeless at least once. They are the challenging segment of our veteran population,” Shinseki said.
But the graduation numbers indicate the program is working, he said. According to VA data, two-thirds of veterans in treatment courts since 2008 have successfully completed their programs.
“We are making positive differences,” Shinseki said.
Former Marine Sgt. Nick Stevanovic, a graduate of the Rochester, N.Y., veterans treatment court, agrees. After serving in Iraq and Afghanistan with 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, he returned home and found himself “severed from society and severed from the Marine Corps.”
Drugs and alcohol offered immediate relief from emotional and physical pain. But they eventually cost him his family, his home and any prospect of a job.
In the Rochester Court, he found redemption.
“When I was in front of the judge, I was reminded of that special relationship between an officer and their subordinates, this authority figure that cares deeply about you. And because of that, I was willing to do anything for [the judge] ... I owe him my life,” Stevanovic said.
Help when needed most
Underscoring the importance the Defense Department and VA have placed on helping transitioning veterans — even ones that run afoul of the law — Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, addressed the conference at the closing ceremonies.
Dempsey praised the 90 new veteran mentors, including Sandoval, and thanked attendees for helping veterans “at the time of their greatest vulnerability.”
Dempsey, who has made transition issues of troops moving from active duty to veteran status one of his priorities, stressed that vets, who already have given much for their country, have more to offer.
“It does them a great disservice if we brand them with stereotypes,” he said. “When I talk to veterans service organizations and employers, I make sure they know it’s not that they should reach out to veterans as an act of charity; they should reach out to veterans because what they get is someone who will contribute in incredible ways to their organizations.”
Sandoval said his turnaround could not have happened without other veterans extending a hand. He agreed with Dempsey that veterans have much to offer, not only to employers but to other veterans.
His mentors “helped me get my life back, and now I’m the one helping others,” he said.