The Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston recently celebrated the tenth anniversary of the Veterans Court it helped establish.
The court marked the milestone by honoring the latest graduates in an off-campus ceremony. Each graduate faced felony charges, but rather than trudge through the conventional judicial system, they participated in the Harris County Veterans Court.
Marine Corps Veteran Marco Rodriguez faced a felony assault charge in late 2017.
“I know I have issues with anger and PTSD,” said Rodriguez. “These are issues I needed to deal with, so I am thankful I was allowed to take this route.”
Using alternative punishments such as fines, fees, community service, and mental health treatment options, the Veterans Court uses jail as a last resort.
“We try to avoid jail time for participating Veterans whenever possible,” said Judge George Powell, 351st District Court, Harris County, who volunteers his services to the Veterans Court. “I find it unbelievably rewarding. Seeing their success is my reward. They are working hard to improve their lives. I’m really proud of them. It’s my honor to do this. I love it and appreciate the opportunity.”
Rodriguez says he learned many things about himself through the process, including accountability and the emotions that pushed him to physical violence.
“I met with a VA family therapist for four months,” Rodriguez said. “It taught me to recognize signals and how to de-escalate situations. We focused on family issues and productive ways to communicate. I also talked about flashbacks and nightmares with my VA mental health provider.”
“My life would’ve been totally different without it.”
The first Veterans Court in the country began in 2008. The program has now spread to more than 400 communities. Houston’s Harris County was the first in Texas to pilot the program.
“We’ve seen the positive effect,” said Lori Coonan, LCSW and Veteran Justice Outreach specialist. “Veterans will tell you that without the program their lives would be much different.”
Rodriguez agrees. Without the Harris County Veterans Court, his life likely would have spiraled downward.
“Thirty seconds flipped my life upside down,” Rodriguez said. “Felony charge, lose everything, my job … everything. My life would’ve been totally different were it not for this program. I wouldn’t be focused on my mental health. I’d be focused on trying to pay my bills.”
The ability to focus on mental health is perhaps the most important aspect of the program.
“Many Veterans – prior to entering the Veterans Court – would begin treatment, but didn’t always finish it,” said Coonan, adding that court supervision gives them the incentive to complete treatment.
Get back on track
Manny Satarain is a senior Veterans Court mentor and likens his role to that of a sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous.
“We’ll take them to coffee and just talk with them and get them back on track so they can finish the program,” said Satarain. “I am here to help others avoid what I went through—to avoid being a knucklehead like I used to be. I just try to give them hope. That is my reward.”
Rodriguez was so inspired by his mentor that he now wants to become a Veterans Court mentor himself.
“It’s a support system,” Rodriguez said. “I can call my mentor for anything. It’s like being back in the military where everyone wants to help. They want to see you succeed. The support is unbelievable. It feels like family.”
Veterans who face felony charges and are interested in Veterans Court may request their current defense attorney and home court initiate an application for the Veterans Court.
Todd Goodman is a public affairs specialist at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center