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Veterans Treatment Court shaping up for Cullman area

Cullman Times - 6/9/2018

June 09--Returning home from active military duty sometimes leads to problems for veterans that may include criminal charges, but a successful judicial program is producing a high rate of success in solving those issues.

Known as Veterans Treatment Court, the program brings law enforcement, judges and counselors together to provide veterans an avenue for overcoming lingering or developing problems associated with military service. Veterans with non-violent criminal offenses are qualified to participate.

The Cullman Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2214 met with Baldwin County District Judge Michelle Thomason last week to learn details of how the program works. Cullman County Circuit Judge Greg Nicholas and Cullman County District Judge Rusty Turner, a Navy veteran, have also met with Thomason and local veterans.

"Judge Thomason's description of the program and the success it is having was met with a lot of enthusiasm here," said Ken Brown, a retired Air Force colonel and Vietnam War veteran. "I think we will have a lot of support from our judges in starting this program here. We have 7,000 known veterans in Cullman County."

Thomason, who is also a candidate for the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals, said Veterans Court started in New York and was first initiated in Alabama in Shelby County.

"I began to see some problems with veterans after they had served their country. This is a chance to help them and not just put them in jail," Thomason said. "Veterans Court is simply a diversion program and we've had those, like drug court, for years."

What stands out in the program is that many of the criminal issues that some veterans fall into can be traced to post traumatic stress syndrome and the difficulties of integrating back into civilian life, Thomason said.

"We see veterans who have been redeployed multiple times into war zones. Those may not always be lengthy deployments, but they are seeing and experiencing a lot," Thomason said. "The explosions IEDs are causing brain injuries as well as other types of injuries."

Veterans Court offers a voluntary program for veterans. Once they complete the one-year program, the criminal charges are dropped. But that's not the end of the care.

"One point that's important is that everyone who goes into the program has another veteran as a mentor," Brown said. "The mentors are simply there to talk to and may even do things like driving someone to an appointment. Those bonds can last a lifetime. I know when I came back from service it was difficult to get adjusted. The military doesn't prepare you in that direction."

Thomason said many veterans don't seek assistance from the Veterans Administration because they may be aware of the services, or they don't think initially it is necessary.

"We've been able to get the treatment that is needed by helping people to sign up and qualify," Thomason said. "In Baldwin County, we've had the cooperation of judges, the sheriff and the VA. The services are there, and we've even been able to get help for some who had a dishonorable discharge because of PTSD. The success rate of the program is running at 93 percent."

The program is not limited to combat veterans. Anyone who has served in the military can be eligible for participation.

"It's a team effort all around," Thomason said. "The counseling and treatment available can address a lot of areas of need."

Brown said members of the VFW will come into play as mentors.

"Some of the older veterans are ready to help. They've been through coming, re-entering civilian life and they're close-knit group who want to help," Brown said.

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(c)2018 The Cullman Times (Cullman, Ala.)

Visit The Cullman Times (Cullman, Ala.) at www.cullmantimes.com

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