Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Bucks County Veterans Court gives combat-traumatized vets a fighting chance

Posted: Thursday, November 19, 2015
Sometimes, it seems the only person a veteran returning from overseas will trust is another veteran.
Life in a foreign combat zone can change a person in ways that people who have never experienced it can’t understand, veterans say. And sometimes, the battlefield follows them home.
“You don’t come back mentally stronger than when you left,” said Mike, 31, who spent 11 months fighting in Afghanistan. “You’re in a high stressful environment all the time. It’s not like you’re working in the office, you have a bad day and go home.”
When Mike, who didn't want his last name used, returned to Bucks County six years ago, he believed he was leaving the war behind. Things would get better. The nightmares would stop. The hearing trouble would fade. Everything would go back to the way it was before his tour of duty.
Carolyn Debuque (L)
But time didn’t change his life for the better, he said. His second driving under the influence charge did.
The January arrest led Mike to a special second-chance program for combat-traumatized veterans facing minor criminal charges. Mike said he's on track to complete the requirements imposed by Bucks County Veterans Court, and if all goes well, his arrest record will be expunged.
Since 2012, the county's veterans court has operated largely under the radar. But Thursday night, for the first time, participants who completed the Bucks County Veterans Treatment Program will be recognized in a private ceremony at the Bucks County Justice Center in Doylestown.
Eleven of the 12 veterans who have been enrolled in the program have completed it and another 11 other veterans are now enrolled, according to Carolyn Debuque, who volunteers as the coordinator of those who volunteer as veterans court mentors. The one washout was sent back to the regular county court system.
Bucks and Montgomery counties — home to 40,571 and 50,355 military veterans, respectively, as of 2013 — are among at least 19 Pennsylvania counties that have established veterans courts. The programs pair military veterans accused of misdemeanor crimes with other veterans who act as mentors. To be considered for veterans court, a participant must have a diagnosis of a mental health condition, traumatic brain injury or a substance abuse problem directly related to combat service.
Veterans court runs similarly to the county’s longstanding trial diversion program known as accelerated rehabilitative disposition for nonviolent first-time offenders. Each month, a small handful of new participants appear before Bucks County Judge Wallace Bateman Jr. Most defendants served in Afghanistan or Iraq, but a few fought in Vietnam, officials said.
The probationary program lasts six months. If participants complete the requirements — which can include community service, restitution and counseling — and aren't arrested during that time, their criminal charges are reduced or expunged after another six months of probation or house arrest, depending on the severity of the charges, according to officials.
Bucks County Director of Veteran Affairs Dan Fraley believes Veterans Court helps divert newly returned veterans from making more, and possibly worse, mistakes than those that landed then in vet court.
“Overall, Bucks County has a program that is working quietly,” he added. “I’ve seen some veterans benefit from it.”
At least 360 combat veterans — 90 percent of the 400 who have sought services through the Bucks County Veterans Center in Bristol Township since it opened six years ago — have been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, according to Jeff Hoerger, who heads the center. Hoerger said veterans courts are a good tool for connecting such individuals with treatment and services through the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Studies have also found such diversion programs are successful in preventing future arrests.
Most recently, researchers from the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services tracked 86 veterans diagnosed with PTSD who were involved in jail diversion and trauma recovery programs. They found nearly 90 percent of participants weren't arrested again during the program and that vets who participated experienced “significant” improvement with depression, PTSD and substance abuse as well as emotional well-being and relationships with others.
“When provided programs and services that fostered recovery, veterans improved markedly on all study measures,” according to the study, which appeared in the Community Mental Health Journal earlier this year. “Veterans particularly improved when provided a combination of trauma-specific treatment, peer mentor services, and medication.”
Mike learned about Bucks County’s vet court from a veterans counseling center following his most recent DUI arrest. At the center, he was diagnosed with PTSD and started weekly mental health counseling.
Over the last year, he said he has developed a close relationship with his veteran mentor, a bond he believes will continue after he completes the program.
“With the veterans court, you have a connection already. There is already a trust built there. There is trust there before you meet them,” he said. “I didn’t feel I was meeting with a complete stranger. I didn’t feel like I had to hold anything back.”
Mike said he may join one of the military reserves and is considering signing on as a veterans court mentor. “It’s been fantastic. It’s really helped me understand what I was dealing with,” he said.
Debuque understands the sometimes difficult transition military members can face when they return home from overseas. A master sergeant with the Pennsylvania Air National Guard who has seen combat in Afghanistan and Kuwait, Debuque volunteered as a veterans court mentor in neighboring Lehigh County for two years.
The DA’s office liked Debuque's work so much that Debuque, who is a paid juvenile probation employee, was asked to coordinate the mentors for the Bucks veterans court. Under her guidance, the number of mentors has increased to 15 — a number she hopes to grow. And all branches of the military are represented.
“I live by the motto, 'Don’t leave anyone behind,'” she said. “What I get out of it is just for them to know there is someone there who understands and gets it. We’re not going to judge anything. We’re just one of their brothers in arms to help them on the other end.”
Retired Lt. Col. Scott Hreso learned about the Bucks County Veterans Court when Debuque tapped him as a mentor earlier this year. The Horsham resident served as a U.S. Marine and a retired fighter pilot with the Pennsylvania Air National Guard in Afghanistan and during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
At 56, he was paired with a U.S. Army vet roughly half his age. The day they met six months ago, the two worked out together at a local gym. They did more sweating than talking that day, but a mutual respect developed. The two have since become close friends, Hreso said.
“We speak the same language. I see the confusion on their face, just like I had when I was young and in the Marine Corps,” he explained. “When you talk to regular people, you have to explain to the 'nth' degree what you’ve experienced. When you’re in the same conflict, it only takes a few words.”
Over the months they’ve worked together, Hreso, a single father of four, said he has seen a new sense of maturity and responsibility from the vet he's mentoring.
“He’s shifted back into that, he’s back in the United States (and) this is how this civilized society works,” he added. “I saw him fit back into society and realized he is an American in the United States again and he is going to comply with what we do here.”

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