Veterans Treatment Court offers support, mentoring

Date Published: 
Oct. 20, 2017

Coastal Point • Maria Counts : Active-duty military serice personnel, veterans and their mentors are recognized at Sussex County Superior Courts for their participation in the Veterans Treatment Court program.Coastal Point • Maria Counts : Active-duty military serice personnel, veterans and their mentors are recognized at Sussex County Superior Courts for their participation in the Veterans Treatment Court program.Last month, Sussex County Superior Courts took the time to recognize and honor active-duty military service personnel, veterans and their mentors who participate in the Veterans Treatment Court program.

“Mentors — the strength of the court here is in large measure due to you,” said Delaware Superior Court Judge Richard F. Stokes, who served as a U.S. Air Force Judge Advocate General’s Corps officer during the Vietnam War, “the people who have served, the people that have seen things and understand that when veterans who have served our country come back, they have special problems, because they took the oath and served our country.”

The Veterans Treatment Court’s mission is to divert veterans who meet strict requirements from the traditional criminal justice system and provide them with the tools to lead a productive and law-abiding life.

On Sept. 28, Brig. Gen. Mike Berry, land component commander of the Delaware National Guard, who also serves as deputy commander of Troop 4 for the Delaware State Police, attended the event to show his support of the Court and its veterans.

“Circumstances are what they are. Certainly, the veteran population is a little different than the general population out there. I think that we, the veterans, all deserve an opportunity, and that’s what the mentors are doing.”

Berry also made a point to thank the Court mentors, who support its veterans.

“To see the participation of mentors, and what you all are doing for the mentees, is recognized. The value is recognized, the commitment that you’re making to our veterans. It’s really appreciated,” he said.

Before court business began, a special presentation was made of a completed shadow box containing the service and award ribbons of those involved in Veterans Court.

“It’s awe-inspiring,” said Superior Court Chief of Security Rene Flores Sr., who served in the U.S. Army and Air Force Reserve, and has been deployed in various combat areas, including Afghanistan and Iraq. “There’s a lot of history there. Each branch of service is represented in that box. It reinforces the brotherhood and sisterhood of veterans.”

“The largest set of ribbons was provided by someone who was enrolled in the court,” said Vietnam veteran and mentor Bill Gay. “That someone, after a long and successful career, had made one mistake. Had it not been for the court, that person may have found himself in the general prison population.

“Our hope is that each veteran enrolled in the court is inspired every time they see the displayed service and award ribbon sets, to stay focused on the hard work needed to graduate the Veterans Treatment Court and the rewards associated with graduation. I can say with certainty that, after the first mentees saw the first few ribbon sets placed in this display box, most were anxious to place their ribbons in the box.”

The shadowbox was built by Oscar Gonzales, a retired U.S. Army Ranger, and his three sons — Diego, Niko and Henry.

“It’s exhilarating. It really is. It’s not just seeing the project, because we built it, but it’s seeing everybody else’s expressions and what it means to them. It’s absolutely wonderful to see people’s faces light up with happiness and joy. It’s all about history — past, present and future,” he said. “In order to honor people, you have to remember the things of the past, plus you have to learn lessons from them.”

Gonzales said that, originally, there was talk of buying a box to display the medals.

“I said, ‘No, we’re going to build one.’ We have everything from the Silver Star on down. It all counts.”

Gay pointed out that there are varying sizes of ribbon sets, but the message is the same.

“It reflects that we all worked together when we were on active duty, and it’s our hope that every person enrolled will look at that and remember the great job they did on active duty and reinforce their desire and ability to graduate,” he said.

“We hope it’s especially inspirational to the veterans who are enrolled in the court that they served proudly and they have done a good job. That they now have a temporary problem with the legal system is something they can overcome.”

Paintings offer inspiration in the court

A military-themed painting painted by Randolph Graham, a resident in Sussex Correctional Institution, was also presented to the Court.

“I used to work in Corrections,” said Flores. “He wasn’t a veteran,” he said of Graham, “but he had a son in the Marines. This is his way of giving back to the veterans. … He has made numerous portraits and donated them to numerous veteran organizations. We presented him with the idea and asked, ‘Would you be willing to do this?’ And he did, and he did phenomenal work.”

This wasn’t the first time Flores and his bailiffs have gone the extra mile for area veterans. Earlier this summer, they collected much-needed items to donate to Home of the Brave in Milford, a non-profit whose mission is to “reduce homelessness among our military veteran population.”

They also worked with the Georgetown/Ellendale VFW to have a mural placed in the waiting area of the courtroom, reading, “Thank you to all who have served and all who are still serving!” with the seal of each branch of service displayed.

“I’m a retired veteran, and this is my way not only serving my country while retired, but to give something back to the veterans who served our country and helping those in need,” said Flores. “It’s an awesome feeling. I can’t take all the credit. It’s a team effort. The other bailiffs within my office — it’s a team effort. I present them with challenges, things I want to do, and we come together and make it happen.”

It is important to make the courtroom a welcoming environment for the veterans, said Gay, noting that efforts include placing service flags in the court room and, during each court session, running a patriotic slideshow depicting graduation ceremonies.

Veterans Treatment Court was begun in February 2011, and more than 80 percent of veterans enrolled have graduated from the program since the Sussex County branch of the Court opened in October 2014, with none of them having had issues with the legal system following graduation.

The program is successful in large part due to the efforts of many who want to see the veterans succeed.

“The Superior Court staff, and state and local police, refer vets they encounter in trouble with the legal system to the judge to approve for enrollment in the Vet Court,” explained Gay.

The Court focuses on enrolling veterans who stumbled into trouble with the legal system because of repeated deployments or other issues related to their military service.”

Gay added that the Court does not accept veterans with violent or sexual offenses.

“They’re screened very, very carefully, and the judge makes the final decision as to if they’ll be accepted. Being involved in the Veterans Treatment Court is not a free lunch. They have to work very, very hard.

“The reason Veterans Treatment Court was created was because we had veterans coming back after being deployed two, three, four times,” Gay said. “There was stress on the family, every part of their life. They might have a relatively small infraction with the law.”

Once enrolled in the program, veterans are given a comprehensive evaluation by the Delaware Department of Health & Human Services’ Treatment Access Service Center (TASC) and/or the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs’ Veterans Justice Outreach Team.

“Once they’re accepted, they get a tailored treatment program. It may be anger management, it may be substance-abuse counseling, it may be PTSD counseling, it may be vocational counseling.

“We want them to live in a stable housing environment, have a good job, and go back to being productive members of their community,” said Gay. “It takes them a minimum of six months. For many, it goes as long as 18 months. They have to work very hard, and attend all meetings, fulfill their treatment programs.”

Veterans encouraged to mentor others

A major component of Veterans Court is mentoring. Currently, the Sussex County Veterans Treatment Court has 16 mentors.

The volunteer mentors serve as a resource to help the veteran with whatever they may need — be it finding stable housing or employment, or accessing benefits or resources of which they may be unaware.

“I’m a Vietnam combat vet, and this particular year coming up is my 50-year anniversary of being in the field,” said Gay, who helps oversee the mentors. “It means a great deal for me to be able to help the veterans help themselves.”

“It’s something I have to do,” added Vietnam vet Tarry McGovern, who works side-by-side with Gay.

McGovern said he’s working with one mentee, a Marine, who had legal trouble after getting into a fight.

“He was a fabulous young fellow, and we’ve become good friends,” McGovern said, adding that he loves being a part of the program. “I try to have them call me once a week, or I call them once a week, and discuss how their week went.

“That’s probably the most important thing — to listen to them, encourage them and do not judge them. We’re just positive influences. You have to be positive all the time.”

Mentor Michael Burkhart, a retired emergency-room doctor, said he first heard of the program after Gay sent out an email to members of the Military Officers Association of America, looking for mentors.

“I thought I could put something back,” he said. “I look at my role as somebody the veteran can complain to, a shoulder he can cry on. As a guy who’s been there… I can at least see where they’re coming from. So many people in the legal system just don’t understand. I’m grateful that Judge Stokes does understand.”

Burkhart served as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam and graduated from the Naval Academy. He retired as a captain in the Marine Corps and then joined the National Guard, in which he stayed for 13 years.

Burkhart said he feels for today’s soldiers and wants to help them as much as he can.

“I was lucky. When I got back from my combat service, I didn’t get out — I stayed in a couple more years. So, I got a chance to work through my PTSD with other veterans who had the same experience that I did.

“So I didn’t suffer the consequences that these guys do. They go into combat, and they have these horrible experiences. Then they’re turned loose into the civilian world with a bunch of people who have no idea. Some of these guys — I’m amazed they’re still alive. It speaks to a toughness that they have.

“Many have trouble with drugs and alcohol, but, despite that, they still persevere. This Court provides a way for them to navigate the rocks and shoals, and it’s very rewarding when some combat veteran makes it.”

Burkhart said he thinks a lot of combat veterans these days who have trouble are medicating themselves because of the trauma they endured.

“When day after day — particularly, night after night — you relive these horrible experiences, it makes it very difficult to continue. A lot of guys lost limbs in the war, but a lot of guys have wounds you can’t see, but they are very, very real.”

Veterans Treatment Court is needed, said Burkhart, because once soldiers have seen war, they need to be supported when they return home.

“As an emergency doctor, I’ve always been very hard-nosed about drunk driving, for example. But this is different. No, we don’t want veterans driving drunk any more than we want anyone else driving drunk, but doggone… they took care of us. We must take care of them. They’re put in situation that no man should be put in. We civilians don’t pay for it — they pay for it — and that’s not fair.”

Jobs a key component for returning veterans

Jobs are something that business owners can do to help the returning veteran population, said Burkhart.

“Think about what they’re asked to do, what they learn at age 17, and the leadership, how to act under stress, and solving problems — skills that would be valued by any employer that takes a civilian years to learn — stuff they learn the first day. Yet this tremendous resource isn’t tapped by employers because they’re afraid. Veterans — and particularly combat veterans — are good workers and will make money for your company.

“Give them a job. ‘Thank you for your service’ is a nice thing to say, but a veteran, like everybody else, has to put food on the table. So many people say, ‘A veteran — oh, he may freak out on me. I can’t hire him.’ That’s a horrible thing to do to a veteran. These guys should have preference for employment, not put at the back of the line.

“As a society, we should do everything we can to keep the veterans employed and ensure they have a reason to continue. They look forward to going to work every day and contributing to society, and not grabbing a bottle or a needle.”

As a mentor, Burkhart said it’s “rewarding” to see a mentee graduate from the program, and other area veterans should join the program and serve as mentors.

“Those guys sacrificed for us. The price paid for that sacrifice isn’t paid for by those of us who benefitted. It’s paid for by them again when they can’t find a job, when they can’t stay off the drugs, when they get in trouble with the law, when they can’t sleep at night, when their marriages end up in divorce,” he said.

“What we did by sending them there was bad enough. What we’re doing to them now is horrible. This court is an attempt to fix part of that. I’m extremely grateful to Judge Stokes for taking on this job.”

The Sussex Veteran Treatment Court mentor team is always seeking new mentors. People may qualify to become a mentor if they are a veteran or have had a great deal of experience with veterans as a family member or professionally.

Those interested in becoming mentors who would like more information can email Bill Gay at billgsussexvetcourt@gmail.com or Tarry McGovern at tarrygunner777@aol.com.

Those wishing to support veterans in other ways, or veterans seeking information for themselves about benefits, can go to the Delaware Joining Forces website for a listing of organizations supporting veterans, at delaware.gov/djf.