When a judge first told Kyle he could go to Veterans Court to resolve his alcohol-related run-ins with the law, the 29-year-old former Army infantryman said he had no idea what that meant or the hard work that was in store.
“But I figured anything set up for vets had to be better than what I was looking at,” he said.
Sixteen months later — months of regular bi-weekly check-ins with Judge Jack Grandsaert, attending services with the Department of Veterans Affairs and dealing with his post-traumatic stress disorder from tours in Afghanistan and Iraq — the once-guarded and defensive veteran is the third graduate of the alternative San Mateo County Superior Court program and facing a future he hopes includes mentoring others and establishing a nonprofit retreat for others in his position.
“Sometimes you have to go down to go back up,” said Kyle, who asked that his last name not be used.
Helping convicted veterans like Kyle reach those heights and giving back to those who’ve given to their country was the impetus behind the county’s Veterans Court. The treatment court launched in July 2012, joining the county’s other diversionary alternatives that offer participants therapy, substance abuse rehabilitation and support in place of incarceration. The program isn’t easy — some defendants opt for straight probation rather than the strict rules and supervision of veterans court, say organizers — but those who succeed get their records expunged and sealed, their fines forgiven and often a new view on life.
“It’s important because we owe veterans different treatment. We’re recognizing they are the ones serving and protecting us and in doing so developed PTSD or traumatic brain injury. It’s a different standard but I think it’s appropriate,” said Grandsaert, who presides over Veteran’s Court on Friday mornings.
To participate, a veteran must have an honorable discharge, a probation eligible conviction, not be a sex or gang registrant, not pose a danger to society and have a mental health condition caused by or exacerbated by their military service. Once convicted, veterans appear before Grandsaert for consideration. If the man or woman meets the criteria, they are mentally assessed, their discharge record checked with the VA and the multi-department group decide if the veteran is a good fit.
The program is individually tailored to a veteran’s needs and takes on average 18 months to two or three years to complete. Participants include veterans dating back to Vietnam up through veterans in their early 20s. Assistant District Attorney Morley Pitt, who has represented the office in the program since the beginning, remembers one man with a history of thefts and drug possession who was 78 years old.
“He said he was just finally tired of the lifestyle of using drugs,” Pitt said.
San Mateo County’s court is among the newest in Northern California although Grandsaert and others involved say it came to fruition in the midst of tough budget times. Organizers from the private defender panel, district attorney’s office, behavioral health and probation department had to volunteer their time during lunch hours to figure out how they wanted the new court to operate.
“It’s truly been a collaborative effort because without everyone agreeing to participate and essentially provide additional service on top of what they already do this couldn’t have gotten off the ground,” Pitt said.
While the program how has a two-year pilot grant, the worry remains that further court cuts will leave it on the chopping block. Grandsaert has two half-days to handle Veteran’s Court but, with limited staff, he could always be forced to give the time back to other matters.
When court is in session, an American flag hangs in the back and the seats are filled with veterans at varying points of participation. One by one, Grandsaert calls them up for a progress check. Those with glowing reports receive praise and a $10 gift card — their choice of Target or Starbucks this particular graduation morning.
But Grandsaert pulls no punches with those who are stumbling and warns them they’re in danger of being removed from the program. One man says he’s having logistical difficulties getting from South San Francisco to the court and the VA. Grandsaert lays out the train route for him. Another hasn’t been answering his cellphone. Might be his age, he offers.
Grandsaert won’t have it. I’m probably older than you, he tells the veteran who promises to do better.
“They want you to succeed,” Grandsaert tells the veterans about the attorneys, mentors and VA workers in the courtroom. “I want you to succeed.”
Over and over again, Grandsaert emphasizes that the veterans must make this program a priority and ask for help when necessary. Grandsaert tells them this is their new duty and lets them know they don’t have to do it alone. He asks many during check-ins how their confidence level is doing.
The effect on those thriving in the program is obvious.
“I feel better today than I have in years,” one man tells Grandsaert with a wide smile and laugh.
Defense attorney Laura Torres, who represents participants in Veterans Court along with Myra Weiher, assistant chief of the private defender program, believes the court’s strict regulations and monitoring is a big key to its success with veterans.
“You have this good structure kind of like you have in the military. Slowly, that structure drops off until you’re doing less and less and you’re doing things on your own,” Torres said.
Veterans are a different population because they often need special handling due to triggers than might sound unreasonable — a doorbell for instance or a hand on the shoulder. How a police officer responds in a typical situation may lead to a very different reaction with a veteran, Torres said.
Torres recalled one participant with PTSD so bad he had to live in a car because he qualified for housing but couldn’t be with other people. He also had to meet a therapist in an atrium because four walls was too stressful. After six months, he walks tall, looks others in the eye and was able to accept housing, she said.
Torres couldn’t remember offhand the man’s crime, which is not surprising. In Veteran’s Court, once a person is accepted, there isn’t much focus on what got a person there; mainly the talk is where they are going.
Watching the newer participants take their turn before Grandsaert, Kyle said he remembers the feeling well. He also recalled his skeptical attitude when he learned about what the program entailed.
“I was like what do you mean I have to quit drinking?” he said. Kyle, an avid hunter, also had to abstain from weapons for his two years of probation.
Kyle said he knew he had some issues but a trip to the VA offered him two options — a three-day stay in a psychiatric ward or going home. He opted for the latter and eventually ended up with the arrests that got him into Veterans Court. During his tenure with the sheriff’s work program, Kyle also put his plumbing skills to good use fixing the leaky coastside public restrooms he’d been assigned to clean.
Like every participant, Kyle was paired with another veteran as a mentor much like a round-the-clock sponsor to help keep him on track and provide the ear of someone who understand his unique needs. Now graduated, Kyle is looking forward to doing the same for someone else in the program.
Finding their way
Watching Kyle and another veteran graduate Jane, not her real name, who was accepted into the program after convictions for drug possession and driving while under the influence. The 33-year-old former U.S. Navy member with its construction battalion in Spain said she tried getting help for her trauma at the Fort Miley VA but was turned away. Juggling school, divorce and a new baby, she turned to drugs as her life imploded. She drained her savings, lost her job and ultimately arrived in Grandsaert’s court angry, frightened and not sure she even wanted to participate. After picking up three new cases after enrollment, Jane said Grandsaert finally got through by asking what they had to do to help her. She was never good at asking herself, she said.
A month in rehabilitation, a job and the realization that others care if she shows up for work or court has Jane, the program’s first female participant, looking at her future as a mom and person differently.
“Life is so much simpler now,” she said. “Life as a sober individual is far less complicated.”
Now, her fear is getting too cocky about her turnaround and falling into bad habits. Looking at Kyle and his fellow graduate, Jane said she sees where she can be.
Stories like that of Kyle and Jane are the “proof in the pudding” that Veterans Court works, Grandsaert said.
“I see this as a valuable resources,” he said. “In some cases, these people have lost hope but have now found their way into becoming people who are not just productive but helping others.”
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