First Veterans treatment court graduate is proof anything is possible
The first graduate of the first Veterans Drug Treatment Court, Manny Welch, is living proof that anything is possible, that if the bad that life brings your way doesn’t kill you, you can overcome it and a lot more. You can reinvent yourself. You can go home again.
Manny is a Vietnam-era Veteran who “used to live and lived to use” long after he left the military in 1979. Before he would begin the long road back from alcohol and drug addiction, he lost two families, four children, more than one job and his self-respect.
“My addiction was full blown,” said Manny at the Justice for Veterans national conference in Washington on July 27. “I was sitting in a soup kitchen (in Rochester, N.Y.) and there was a gentleman driving a van. I forgot what his name was but he came to the soup kitchen and he said, ‘Are there any Veterans here who want to turn their life around and, if so, you are welcome to get on this van and I will take you to the Buffalo VA.’”
Manny remarried – 24 years now – and has two children. His son, Manny Welch III, who attended the Justice for Veterans Conference with his dad, is now in college in Pittsburgh.
Manny said he began his road to recovery after his introduction to the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court, the first such court begun by Judge Robert Russell in January 2008.
“That’s where the transformation began, because when they asked me in there, Judge Russell asked me a certain question,” Manny recalled. “He said something to me that nobody else had ever said, and he said, ‘Thank you for your service’…and they all stood up…and they all started clapping…and, I’m looking around and I’m (thinking), ‘What kind of court is this?’”
A drunken binge in 2008 following the death of his father led Manny back to jail and before Judge Russell, who refused to give up on Manny, and Manny’s transformation took its most positive turn.
“The motto leave no Veteran behind is truly true, because (no one) would give up on me and they said, ‘You’re gonna do this and you’re gonna get through it,’” Manny recalled.
Manny considers his greatest achievement graduating from the Buffalo Veterans Drug Court and is proud being the first graduate of the first Veterans Court. From there, he worked his way through VA treatment programs, right into a steady job at the Buffalo VA Medical Center.
Along the way, Manny also got a degree from Erie Community College, a bachelor’s degree from the University of Buffalo and has risen to the position of peer support specialist. It’s a job he says he was always meant to have, “that God led me to.” He said every day he can apply his education and life lessons to help Veterans maneuver the turns and twists, fits and starts he encountered on his road to recovery.
Ken McKinnon is the video team leader on VA’s Digital Media Engagement team. He has a 45-year career in journalism and government service, 13 years with Florida newspapers, 10 as a press and communications director on Capitol Hill, and 22 with the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs. He is the proud son of a career Marine Master Sergeant who served in World War II and the Korean War.
Veterans court program helps warriors battle addiction, mental health crises
Former Marine Cpl. Eric Gonzales doesn’t remember much about the night last year he led police in Orange County, Calif., on a high-speed, 26-minute chase that ended when he threw his truck into reverse and crashed into the patrol car behind him.
When he finally took his foot off the gas, he was handcuffed and later charged with DUI, evading arrest, assault on a police officer and more.
Still in the Marine Corps at the time, and living at Camp Pendleton, Gonzales’s first court appearance was brief; he argued with the judge and got himself ejected.
But then he finally listened to his counsel: “My lawyer recommended I go to veterans court” — one of a growing number of such programs that oversee criminal cases involving military veterans who were arrested at least partly because of an addiction or mental illness, most commonly depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
An average of 22 military veterans commit suicide every day in this country, perhaps the best measure of the mental health crisis among veterans. And 130 special courts for veterans in 40 states are tackling that problem.
The first one was started in Buffalo in 2008, modeled on the drug courts that have significantly reduced recidivism rates by substituting treatment and other support programs for incarceration.
Gonzales, who served in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010, was facing a nine-year prison sentence, so he was eager to opt for oversight from Judge Wendy Lindley’s veterans court in Orange County. He “graduated” from the program in September.
On Monday, the 23-year-old stepped up to a podium in a ballroom at Washington’s Marriott Wardman Park hotel and addressed a crowd of about 900 as the first speaker at the first national training conference for those who work in such courts.
Gonzales, a high school sports star from San Bernardino, had a college scholarship but persuaded his parents to sign the waiver that let him enlist at 17: “I joined the greatest fighting force I could — the United States Marine Corps!” he said, to a big round of hoo-rahs from Marines in the crowd.
But while serving in Afghanistan, he saw the man who had been “like a father” to him blown up by an improvised explosive device. So once he was back home, Gonzales told the crowd, he began drinking heavily and was “shocked at the truth of the beast.” He skipped the specifics but said, “I had fallen off my white horse.”
Through the veterans court, he started to work on his problems instead of masking them: “I did mindfulness, PTSD and exposure therapy — which . . . really do work, actually.”
After he spoke at the conference, a succession of big names did, too: “He’s what it’s all about,’’ retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey said of Gonzales. “We’ve got this battle force that kept us safe since 9/11; now we’ve got to stay behind them.’’
After the program, Gonzales’s former drug court parole officer, Bert Eitner, came up to congratulate him.
During his first week in Afghanistan, Gonzales’s base was attacked by a suicide bomber; two Marines were killed. The later loss of his mentor, Sgt. Maj. Robert Cottle, who was killed by a 300-pound explosive device, was hard — as were orders from his superiors that prevented Gonzales from quickly retrieving the body.
“That’s what broke my mind,’’ he said.
After returning home in May 2010, “we’d only discuss when we were drunk who died.”
The veterans court doesn’t take men and women on active duty, Eitner said, “because there’s no point giving them all these services and then letting them go back to deployment.”
“If you mess up,’’ Gonzales said the judge told him, “you’re going to prison.” Instead, he lived in a residential treatment center. He meditated, worked out, did cognitive therapy, underwent exposure therapy — in which he was taken back to his mentor’s death again and again— and attended every 12-step meeting he could.
Asked whether he was tested regularly for drugs and alcohol, Eitner and Gonzales burst out laughing. Six times a week by Eitner alone, Gonzales said, “even though I was already peeing for four other people.”
Since graduating from the program three months ago, he’s back in school, studying audio engineering and getting some work, too, while living with his parents and advocating for the program that he feels saved his life.
Both Gonzales’s problem and his progress are pretty typical of what Eitner sees, he said, in a program that has a recidivism rate of 3 percent. “This guy,’’ Eitner said of his former charge, “was sent someplace no one should ever be sent, but that’s what we do to our kids because they’re good at it. And you can’t strap a gun on every day and have it not affect you.”
How A Different Kind Of Criminal Court Saved This Marine Veteran
Timothy Wynn enlisted in the Marines in 1999, but when the Corps extended his contract, he was sent overseas. In 2003, Wynn deployed to Iraq with 2nd Military Police Battalion as part of the initial invasion.
“I was on stop-loss, and once they lifted stop-loss, everyone who was on it, came home,” said Wynn, who was honorably discharged as a sergeant. “Within 72 hours of being back at Camp Lejeune, I was back in Philadelphia, with really no time to just process where I’d just been.”
Four days later, he was arrested for aggravated assault, but because Wynn couldn’t be picked out of a lineup, he wasn’t charged.
“I got lucky there,” the 36-year-old Marine veteran told Task & Purpose.
His luck didn’t last. Wynn was arrested seven more times after that. Over the next four years, he struggled with substance abuse, and spent an entire year in the county jail due to his multiple arrests.
“I lost my girlfriend at the time, who is now my wife, and we had a young daughter and for the first four years of her life, I wasn’t in my daughter’s life because I was addicted to drugs, I was addicted to alcohol,” said Wynn, who now has two children. “Basically I was a mess.”
Wynn eventually kicked his drug habit and quit drinking, but unresolved mental health problems caused by his time in Iraq played a role in his final arrest.
In May 2013, Wynn got into a confrontation while on the road in what he describes as a “road-rage incident.” His final arrest landed him in the Philadelphia veteran treatment court, and that’s when things began to change.
Based on the drug treatment court model, veteran treatment courts offer an alternative to jail time or sentencing for veterans with substance abuse problems and mental health issues who are facing criminal charges.
Created by Judge Robert Russell in 2008 in Buffalo, New York, these state courts are problem-solving, or collaborative courts where defendants focus on rehabilitation during the course of the treatment. Participants are connected with representatives from the Department of Veteran Affairs, Department of Labor, state departments of veteran affairs, vet centers, veteran service organizations and volunteer veteran mentors.
“I began my treatment and I had all this support in this courtroom, which was very unusual to me,” said Wynn, who was sentenced to nine months in the treatment court, but graduated in six. “People were actually going out of their way to call me when I wasn’t in the courtroom, which was special. They kept up on me to make sure I was going to my appointments. They really had my best interests in hand.”
While at the treatment court, Wynn met with behavioral health specialists from the VA and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, for which he began receiving treatment. Additionally, he attended counseling sessions with his fellow veterans, something he says helped immensely.
“I was shoulder-to-shoulder again with my brothers and sisters who went through the same things I went through, which was pretty special,” said Wynn. “I had that camaraderie back in my life from being in court. I had that support system again where I could call another veteran and say something that didn’t sound crazy to them, they understand what I’m talking about. It’s just a special, special court.”
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If participants successfully complete and graduate from the course, their charges can be dismissed and records wiped clean, though that depends on the charge and the agreement made between the defense, prosecution, and the court judge.
When Wynn graduated, his charges were expunged, except for one which he is in the process of having removed from his record. Now, he works at Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and as a peer mentor at the veteran treatment court he attended, and at the local county jail that he was in and out of for a number of years.
According to Justice For Vets, a nonprofit group focused on increasing the number of veteran treatment courts in the country, as of 2012 there were roughly 181,500 veterans in federal prisons and county jails, a decrease from 203,000 in 2004. Between 2001 and 2012, veterans who served during the Global War on Terror accounted for 13% of veterans in prison, and 25% of veterans in jail.
As of June 2014, there were 220 veteran treatment courts in the the country, with more in the planning stages. On April 12, the first veteran treatment court in Manhattan opened, one of 26 other courts in the state.
Thanks in large part to the treatment court, Wynn is gainfully employed, attends community college and his home life with his wife and two daughters is stable, he said.
“It’s not an easy thing to do,” Wynn explained. “You don’t go in there and just get a slap on the wrist. You really have to work and you have to earn it. That’s what’s great about it. You have to get up in the morning and take control of things. That’s what works the most, putting us back in charge of our lives and being accountable of things.”
According to Municipal Judge Patrick Dugan, who oversees the Philadelphia veteran treatment court that Wynn attended, part of the treatment court’s success is that the participants all share common ground: military service.
“When a defendant comes up, for the most part they go into their military background, they go to parade rest, they say, ‘Yes sir,’ or, ‘No sir.’ That doesn’t happen with typical criminal defendants,” explained Dugan, a former paratrooper who serves as a military lawyer in the Army reserves.
Dugan is also a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and served in South Korea as well as Panama. He has presided over Philadelphia’s Veterans Court since it began in 2010, and since that time more than 500 veterans have graduated from the program, which has a 10% recidivism rate.
“At veterans court, we can tap into that pride that most service members have,” Dugan said. “It’s a courtroom, where as a judge, I get to feel really good about what’s going on, a lot.”
James Clark is a staff writer for Task & Purpose. He is a former Marine combat correspondent and a veteran of the War in Afghanistan. You can reach him via email at James@taskandpurpose.com. Follow James Clark on Twitter@JamesWClark