A Second Chance: Veterans Treatment Courts

When a Veteran returns home from war, they trade adrenaline-soaked firefights for mall shopping and combat patrols for classrooms. When life screeches to a relative halt, there tends to be a common question among Vets: Now what? The false sense that life will fall perfectly back in place, coupled with the idea of what is supposed to come next and the realization that the rush felt during deployment is gone forever can lead some Vets to go heavy on alcohol and drugs, ultimately catapulting them into a legal system that, until recently, was unable to adequately deal with the unique challenges faced by Vets.

As Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Slaughterhouse-Five, in war, “absolutely everybody gets a little something.” For Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans, unfortunately, that can mean coming home with post-traumatic stress, an increased risk for homelessness, and—in a tiny minority of cases—a temper that can lead to problems. For these reasons, Veterans Treatment Courts became a phenomenon. The idea was brought to life in 2008 in western New York by Judge Robert Russell, who based the idea on making a hybrid court—one that took aspects of popular drug and mental health courts already established across the U.S. By early 2010, there were 24 operational Veterans courts—from Buffalo to Los Angeles with another 40 in development across the United States.

With the growing number of Veterans Treatment Courts, VA required justice-focused action at the medical center level, hence the Veterans Justice Outreach Initiative was created to educate the legal system, law enforcement, and jails on unique issues facing today’s Veterans. Once Veterans enter the legal system, VJO specialists help them avoid unnecessary incarceration through integration into VA substance and mental health treatment programs.

According to Chris Woods, a Veterans Justice Outreach Specialist with the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center, most of the arrests he has seen among young Iraq and Afghanistan Vets are for driving under the influence, simple assaults, public intoxication, resisting arrest, and possession of drugs. Woods says the Veterans he works with do not typically have a history of violence or drug use. This makes it even more critical to get those eligible into VA treatment instead of behind bars.

To be eligible for treatment services, Veterans need an honorable discharge and two or more years of active duty service. However, with the ongoing conflicts, the two-year requirement is often waived if the Veteran has been deployed. If a Vet has an other-than-honorable discharge, he or she can file an appeal. For those with a dishonorable discharge, Woods will refer them to a Wounded Warrior program which will work with a Veteran regardless of discharge status.

Sean Clark, the National Coordinator of Veterans Justice Outreach in the Office of Mental Health Services here at VA, believes the success of the treatment courts is due to “connecting Vets with VA services at the earliest possible point.” And the first encounter for the Vet is usually with law enforcement.

The law enforcement personnel who participate in the program are trained to deal with PTSD, crisis intervention, and how to interact with someone who has mental health issues. They also receive information about VA substance and mental health programs. Law enforcement has been trained to remain calm and simply ask if the person they’re encountering is a Veteran.

“Law enforcement is receptive to the training,” said Woods. “A lot of them are Veterans themselves.”

Woods has introduced himself to a handful of courts and jails and personally links up with 40 – 50 courts and 21 jails in 43 counties and eight cities. He educates the courts on what VA services are available and how VA can be used to help the troubled Veteran. While VJO specialists identify appropriate VA services, the court ultimately decides if the program is suitable for the Veteran.

“I have not had a judge or court turn down VA services or resources yet,” said Woods.

Once a Veteran has accepted VJO services the court can pair them with a mentor, usually a Veteran, who provides peer support. The Veteran must also identify and actively pursue personal goals, which include employment and educational opportunities.

If a Veteran has landed in jail, VJO specialists still have an opportunity to reach them prior to their release. Veterans are identified by prison mental health staff and connected with a specialist. However, the biggest challenge Woods sees is that Veterans don’t actually know they are a Veteran and qualify for VA services.

“They don’t see themselves as Veterans,” said Woods. “They automatically think of old people as being Vets. . .not young people.”

Woods estimates he has helped between 50 – 100 Veterans during his year and a half on the job. His time on each case varies from simply writing up a court report to months of dedicated in order to help a Veteran succeed. But the reaction he receives is typically the same: positive and grateful.

Veteran Treatment Courts continue to spread across the country, welcomed by communities for their efforts to help Vets in need. No one who deploys anticipates returning home to life in a jail cell. With the help of Veterans Justice Outreach Specialists and Veteran Treatment Courts, Vets are being given a second chance.

“Someone in crisis doesn’t belong in jail but deserves some help,” said Clark.

Learn more about the Veterans Justice Outreach Initiative.

Pavement Piece/Flickr


Kate Hoit




    1. Dan Goff    

      When anyone from anywhere reaches out for help, let the hand of Alanon be there and let it begin with me.

      1. Mrs. Pat Byrne    

        Been there and done that! PTSD! is so much MORE! Our lives
        isn’t ruled by acholal, All of our problems IS NOT BECAUSE
        OF acholal. I have stayed married for over 30+ years.
        BiLL AND BiG BOOK! is a help but not the answer. It’s an
        easy blame! NOT THE REAL CAUSE! we vet wives know!

  2. Telisa    

    I was raised in Chorpus Christi, Tx where we worked with Bro Lester Roloff with the Roloff Evangelistic Enterprises. For people in trouble with the law, drugs, ect. Had homes for girls boys,9-18, men and wemon,18+ then a home for unwed mothers, home for older people to retire at.
    Then I helped start a christian Deaf Home and School, worked with the deaf for 20 years.

    the last ten years I have been around many many many vetnam vets, and learning more and more what each one goes threw each day, and am with one also,

    I would love to know if there is some way I could help them more, Please write me and let me know of any thing i can do to help some of our vets,

    Thank you very much

    1. Brenda Hayes    


      If you are married to a VNVet you could check out and see what the local VAMC or the Vet Centers have for either you or your husband.

      Spouse support groups are needed and apparently the Vet Centers don’t know how to do Outreach…maybe you can “help” them.

      Ask to see their Outreach Plan; I have not found any that had a OP and when I asked the Jupiter Vet Center, the marriage counselor said, “I don’t have to give you that!” Apparently, someone forgot to tell them about the new VA transparency and customer service!!!

      Also, there SHOULD be at each VAMC a local Recovery Coordinator who is supposed to assist in getting a Consumer Mental Health Group. Usually, this group is always in need as I keep hearing how it so hard to keep one going or getting one up and going. It takes more than someone in an Advisory position to assist in getting this group functional; they need some organizational skills AND Commitment. The leadership MUST come from the Veterans/family members because from I have seen todate; it won’t come from the LRCs. It could play a really badly needed feedback loop to the VAMC Administration which is so badly needed for Veterans who have NO Voice!

      These LRC were set up in 2007 and are supposedly put in place as the VA is doing a paradigm shift in Mental Health; focus more on sort of like a 12 step program.

      All VAMC’s should have Recovery Plans (Written plan; some called WRAP planning/groups; mentors, accountability buy in for the patient which is usually missing in “talk” therapy.

      Some VAMC have them and are doing well; some have them and don’t have all the components such as the West Palm Beach VAMC.

      Some VAMC’s also don’t have Family Member Care Giver Program set up and also no support for the caregivers (at this time) with no projection of what and when. How do you like those APPLES!!! Director are you listening!!!

      THIS IS TYPICALLY what the family members and Veterans are finding.

      Probably, the best way is also to find out who is ACTUALLY doing Outreach to the Community including the Veterans in the woods and the banks of the Rivers…clothing, food.

      A real need is (and you would think that this would be EASY for the VAMC’s to do…lockers where they could keep a set of nice clothes, shaving gear for appointments, job interviews, etc OF HEY Dream Big…how about a shower/bath for them to have access!

      Why can’t the VA have an open shelter like so many of the local churches do for the homeless veterans WITH THEM HAVING ACCESS TO THE CAFETERIA FOR Dinner/Breakfast from the VAMC!

      I think that DAV, VFW, or whomever could swing for some cots/linens; NOT talking 300 thread count here!!How hard would it be to take an empty floor and devote to our homeless Veterans?? Or is the VA more concerned with keeping the coffers full for the Partnering Hospitals/Docs with BIG PHARMA REEARCH STUDIES!

      I believe having Research studies at the VAMC is a conflict of interest…it is can be very dangerous. Remember Vioxx…they pulled it off the shelves when a study group had several participants that had heart attacks and died; so I was told. Interestingly enough, that was the “study” my Vet participated in at the McGuire VAMC. My Vet is NOT allowed to participate in anymore VA Research Studies–Vioxx–was the first and last one. If he does; he sinks 32 years of marriage. My boundary on that issue is strong!

      He was never told that death was a possibility and I believe that a Family member/spouse should have signed off on this VA study as well. Vets often don’t think of things they should for many reasons either their disabilities or they male egos.

      Keep asking; keep searching….too much to do…if you don’t find things like they are purported to be….COMPLAIN and send a letter/email to Representative Miller of the House Veteran’s Caucus Committee or Senator Patty Murray; or look for Advocacy groups that are planning Action to get Congress to make the VA accountable because apparently they can’t make their own people accountable.

      Use your Voice for those who have no Voice for whatever reasons!

      Blessing to you,

      Brenda Hayes
      Vetwife Advocate

      CAPTCHA CODE AND MISSING POST!!! Still have that IT person????

  3. Mrs. Pat Byrne    

    I am very much PTSD! wife of 30+years dealing with something
    I only thought was a mean self directed, husband that is also a Vietnam vet, and Operation Ranch Hand. These are the
    real Agent Orange! affected. Oh and as I look back thru the
    many tears and years, I give PTSD new meaning. I already had
    this from growing up as a small girl. Couldn’t handle when
    my father came home from work. He would always be mad and hit on my mom. If I could only get away. I did at age 14.
    By the time I met my husband, 25, a vietnam vet. I had no idea of what the future held. Love was blind.
    2 sons and many years of trying to please someone that would never laugh, only kept to himself. We both are emptnesters. Not without both of us being ill. We are in
    central virginia, next to i 95. At and in 1998 I had a mental breakdown. It’s called Bipolar yea right! PTSD!!! He has and wouldnt go to any doctor. Chest pain began, he drank every day. I took him to Richmond Va hospitial. Found out he has heart blockage 3areas that only open bypass will help. Also he showed his true colors there too. By doing this they finally came up with PTSD!
    This was my awakeing to all of the abuse i’ve had to endure. OK! he’s 63, with all these issues and finally he knows. I’m still dignosed mentalmess! came up with a heart attack last year. Had a stroke and as MY bucket list didn’t have any of these things listed.
    Where, What, How, do we ever find anything other than Alaon. Been there done that. I couldn’t talk about PTSD! or being a NAMWIFE! Not in AA either! So their must be more of
    us out there some where! Not even at a mental health place. Just behind closed doors, and treated bad. Been there too.
    I had worked at a place where I learned about human rights and most mental meds. Oh this was before my breakdown.
    I turned them in for every violation in the book. As I was telling them, I was “kicked out”
    Back to our health issues REAL health issues, PTSD! includes Heart problems! He can go to our local va clinc. I have no where to go to vent. The folks at Fredericksburg va clinc, are so rude. When I asked if there was a group for wives of vets. they laughed.The guys setting around just hung there heads. That was 2months ago.
    If anyone reads this and wants to make contact. please do!
    the above addy is no longer. jenajena1952@gmail.com

  4. Sara    

    As a Veteran and Retired Military I am appaled at this! These people are a disgrace to themselves as well as the uniform the once served in! The VA is there to provide MEDICAL care to eligible VETERANS (not family membes) not hand hold criminals. Iraq and Nam are not excuses. My Aunt served 2 tours in Nam, retired from the ARmy and is still a contributing member of society. My Dau has served 2 tours in Iraq and again is still serving. They are not homeless, drunks, or on drugs. As Iraq is a dry country they aren’t starting the drinking there! I find it odd that from what I see I am the ONLY VETERAN who has posted here. The VA is also part of the problem as they continue to enable these people instead of holding them accuntable for their actions.

    1. Davis, E. S.    

      Dear Sara, what would your solution be to solve the issues being addressed?

    2. Army Sergeant    

      There’s a phrase for this. It’s called, “FYJIGM”, or “Fuck you, Jack, I’ve Got Mine.”

      I’m glad that you and your family are doing well, but many veterans who have served their country honorably are not. I know many young veterans who are homeless, and who have trouble adjusting to civilian life. And your attitude, that anyone who is having these problems is a criminal and doesn’t deserve to be helped, is one of the largest reasons why most of them stay away from the help they could be receiving.

      I’m glad the VA is drawing attention to this excellent program.

      Oh, btw, I’m a vet too, so you’re not “alone”, except in your views.

    3. Jon    

      you’re missing the point. It is not that veterans deserve a free pass, it’s treating the root cause of crime. If you punch someone in the face, you might go to jail or pay a fine. But that will not deter you from doing it in the future, because you knew the first time that it was against the law. What this tries to do is refer vets to, for example, mental health counselling, so their issues are resolved. Then there will be no excuse for a repeat offense.
      There are many specialized courts like this, not just for vets, but for juveniles, drug-abusers, or mental health patients. Throwing them in jail and then releasing them penniless is not a good solution.

    4. Jon    

      Sorry, I would also like to point out that I am appalled by your complete lack of knowledge concerning the English language. This appalls me because you state that you are ” a… Retired Military”. If retired, I would say you were either in a position of leadership, which is scary, or you were medically retired, in which case as someone above pointed out: “FYJIGM”
      I’m gonna have to remember that one.

    5. Jon    

      It doesn’t sound like anyone in your life has been a combat soldier. Meaning fought in combat. Not sat on their ass for a year on their nice big base, while the combat troops fought the battles. Just because you were overseas does not mean you are a combat vet. You have no idea. People like you are eating at the Burger King at Baghdad International Airport, while guys like me were dodging bullets, mortars, rpg’s, and ied’s….. You are completely ignorant!

  5. Donald    

    Sara, Allow me to begin by thanking you for your service to our country and allowing us, the citizens of the United States of America our beloved “Freedom of Speech”. I too served our country for 20 years with an honorable discharge. I belong to four Veteran Associations and very active in both the FRA (Enlisted USN, USMC & USCG) as well as the DAV. “We” do a lot of work locally and up on Capitol Hill, and very proud for what I do but wish all Veterans would join something and maybe get involved. The louder our numbers, the stronger our voice and the greater chances our betting bills approved and signed by our beloved, Commander-In-Chief
    Concerning Veterans Court, I’m an advisor for one that we starting here in Texas and already see a lot of the good that it is doing for our Veterans that have been traumatized and diagnosed with PTSD. The majority of them really do not wish to tell me their story, but some have. Sara, I’m not taking anything away from your 20+ years of honorable and dedicated service but, I know for a fact that the majority of these men and women using this system did and saw more in their 6+ months “In Country” then I did during many of my years in service and yes, I saw some “stuff” also. Of course some will look at Vet Court as a way of getting around some action that they chose to take and got caught but, I’m sure you saw a Soldier or Sailor who wore out the seat of their trousers during your career as well. Veterans Court is not an option for all Veterans, only those who are screened and meet the criteria. And it’s not a freebee, they must work and commit to the program.
    Sara, perhaps you may wish to reflect a little on your service before you share your opinion that these men and women are no longer worthy to be helped by our Country now that they have sacrificed their lives and innocence. While I’m certain that your Aunt and Daughter told you many stories, I’m certain that if they stood the front lines that they too would not be standing with you.
    The United States of America does so much for all of our Citizens; including the Illegal Aliens that reside here, but this is what “Apples” you? Wow!
    Yes Sara, in my book you do stand alone!

    1. Tamara Jean Holmquist-Tolbert    

      Thank You Sir for clarifying that for Sarah…I found your letter/response to her opinion to be very imformative and heart felt and wish to thank you for your service to our country both on and off the battlefield. This program in my opinion is long overdue. Bad things happen to really good people and really good people sometimes do really bad things. To see that you continue to serve our country and our veterans makes me remember just how awesome it was to serve as a Marine! Semper Fi and Thanks! Tamara J Holmquist-Tolbert

  6. Tamara Jean Holmquist-Tolbert    

    To all of the ladies above! I have read your letters after reading the article listed above and while it was not clear to me why you chose this particular forum/article to post your comments about health care and support issues, I felt I might be able to help each of you in some small way. My name is Tamara and I hear your pain! First let me state that I was born into the military, became a Marine, married a Marine, watched our Marine retire, finally divorced said Marine and went on to marry my present husband, the love of my life who just so happens to be a Vietnam Veteran, who as of today has been missing for 453 Days from me and our family. And yes the VA knows where he is!

    Through all my years of being associated with the military, my own active duty, as well as my educational and life experiences, one fact rings clear over and over, “If the military wanted you to have a wife, they would have issued you one!” Unfortunately, for women, even with all the VA’s propagandized programs for caregivers, family support etc etc, this is the underlying current that skews all of our attempts and efforts to live a quality of life that we deem vital and necessary for ourselves and our families. So let me try and bring some small sence of validation and comfort by sharing some hard cold facts that I have endured and faced and live every day.

    1) Mental Illness, Diseases and Disorders are Not an Individual Disease, it is a Family Disease/Disorder and until the government begins treating the diseases and disorders as such, the cycle continues. When someone is having heart issues, first and foremost the person suffering is stabilised but the family is part of the healing process and treated as such. This is not the case with mental health issues in the world of veterans and government health care but in the civilian world of mental illnesses, family support is not only appreciated and supported but very much encouraged! The results of the civilian families I know who are dealing with Mental Health issues are nothing short of miraculous! The illnesses are hard enough but the bureaucratic bull will drive you insane. The NAMI Organization has an awesome website, http://www.nami.org The resources there are limitless and you will be guided and directed to other sources that are very helpful to you, your spouses and your family.

    2) We as women have to make the conscience choice and decision to be healthy; physically, soulfully (mind, will and emotions) and spiritually because the bottom line is when we are not balanced and healthy, we can not perform our womanly duties in a manner in which helps not hinders OUR husbands. My experiences have proven to me, even while sitting on the boards and committees enacted to aide and support military wives that while well meaning and well intentioned, these “support systems” simply place a band-aide on a gushing bleeder. I have found that civilian community programs such as: local churches, YMCA, female physicians & therapists and my extended family and friends have proven so much more helpful and supportive than government sponsored programs. That being said, hard cold fact, this pain, this gut wrenching and heart aching pain does not go away and will not go away for me until my husband is either dead or home safely in my arms.

    3) You are not alone and You are worth loving and being respected in a manner in which you want and need to be loved and respected. We are women, we get to cry and hurt and become angry and feel every emotion and thought we want to. Hard cold fact, most government care providers don’t want to hear it especially when they know but never will admit that, we were at one time during this process being logical and rational and correct! However, by the time we are at the crisis/complaint process and having stayed within the prescribed chain of command so to speak, we are ready to let that Mama Bear that resides in all women just come flying out! Needless to say, they give the politically and socially correct answer, pat you on the head, and get to go home to their lives, while we sit and wait and wonder and deal with it all. However, You are not alone in all of this, you would not believe some of the things that I have been told throughout this journey; things have been done and said that if done and said in the civilian world, at the very least, folks would have lost their jobs! According to attorneys, civilian mental health care providers, as well as other veteran wives (who transferred their husbands to civilian hospitals) that I have spoken to, these certain government health care providers and individuals would be facing lawsuits and the loss of their medical licences. Hard cold facts and quite frankly it sucks big time. Hopefully, the women reading this will at least have their minds put to ease knowing that they are not alone, crazy, or imagining all of these happenings.

    4) Hardest Coldest Fact of it All: My husband and I also share responsibility in this entire mess, we entrusted his medical care, our family’s quality of life to a system that we knew to be broken. His biggest fear was, “You check in but you do not check out!” and here we are! I have no clue where he is and how he is. Still, I am here waiting for him, as his wife, in sickness and in health, still crying myself to sleep every night, making myself breathe and Thanking God I served my country as a United States Marine!

    Ladies, I hope you will receive this info with an open heart and mind and that it may in some small way ease your pain a touch. May the Lord our God Bless and Keep You and Yours, Semper Fi, Mrs. Charles Tolbert Jr.

    1. William    

      Here is an attorney who will help…Travis Barrick, if can not personally assist you he will refer you a competent veterans attorney. Travis N. Barrick tbarrick@gwwo.Com Semper Fi, Doc

  7. maynor chauncey    

    i am wondering why a veteran has to wait for six weeks to recieve his or her pay when it was no fault of there own. and the people at the 1-800-827-1000 number keeps hanging up on us/ME. also it was a wire transfer why are we being treated so unfair and being disrespected by staff at 1-800-827-1000 and being told OH well you just have to wait.so unfair, but i went to war gladly and would do it again proudly.but im being told to wait and being talked down to by staff at the variouse call centers throughout the united states. WOW!!! that 1-800-827-1000 number needs a re-vamp ASAP
    i hope some one out there reads this that can truly help us vets. some one with political power. WOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  8. Davis, E. S.    

    Second Chance, “Veteran Treatment Courts” this sounds like a terrific program and a great opportunity for veteran’s to seek help from the justice system before being “Bagged & Tagged” without truly understanding what we go through. Please understand by no means that this should be a free ride to do wrong and expect a helping hand from the justice system. But also on the flip side of this picture what about all the veterans of the past who were not privy to a program like Veteran Treatment Courts and are paying the price of their mistakes over and over again after paying their debt to society, where can they go for help?

  9. Gilbert    

    The va has helped me as much as they can.
    The thing thats makes me mad,the people in the white house don’t think they could help,by taking a pay cut theirself.Our preident has no military background.They just take and keep on taking as long we let them.
    Believe it or not they started answering to pulic when they were sworn in.
    We the people can boot their butts out,it is up to us!!!!!!!!!!AMERICA.

  10. Herky    

    These courts and justice programs at VA were disigned provide advocacy and support for Veterans. We all need to get up off our attitiudes and collective apathy and help each other. Herky

  11. Herky    

    Further, I was in trouble as a juvenile. I joined the Marines post-Vietnam for 6 years and got an Honorable discharge, Within 3 years I was hooked on cocaine and did a robbery. I served 5 years. After release I used my GI bill and then got a job at the VA. I have been there almost 30 years. I work in these programs. Part of my work is givinf back and penance. These efforts are decades overdue! Being a Veteran and having family support saved my life. Herk.

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