First graduates honored by Veterans Court in Memphis
The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn.
They were no longer in uniform, but a half dozen military veterans completed a most difficult tour of duty Wednesday as the first graduates of the Shelby County Veterans Court.
The innovative second-chance program allows veterans to have their criminal cases set aside while they participate in an intensive program that includes counseling, group meetings, alcohol and drug screens, anger management and participation in other support programs.
“You have completed a yearlong mission,” Judge Bill Anderson Jr. told the veterans in a courtroom packed with supporters at 201 Poplar. “We’re trying to make a difference to help those who’ve helped us for so long.”
He gave each graduate a commemorative coin with the Shelby County Veterans Court inscription and told them it was a symbolic key to the courtroom; they can return to visit, seek further help or mentor other veterans.
They also got the criminal-justice equivalent of honorable discharge papers -- expungement orders signed by the judge erasing their offenses from the public record.
“So many times vets get left behind,” said graduate Richie Ingram, a Desert Storm-era Army veteran who says he has “stayed straight” and participated in assigned Veterans Affairs programs.
Ingram had a drunk-driving charge, but that was reduced to reckless driving, which made him eligible for Veterans Court. “We’ve got a long way to go, but this is a good start,” he said. “I’m doing OK.”
The court holds session every Wednesday. There are 42 other veterans participating in its programs who hope to graduate and start with a clean slate.
Attorney and Veterans Court coordinator Jerry Easter said he has some good prospects.
“We’ve got one guy who was doing methamphetamine and he’s had four consecutive clean drug screens,” said Easter, who was a Marine in Vietnam. “And we have another one who passed his test who hadn’t had a clean drug screen since Eisenhower was a private.”
Participants in the Veterans Court are, in a sense, drafted as court officials peruse daily jail lists for defendants identified as veterans, although those charged with serious violent crimes, child abuse or certain other offenses are not eligible.
Substance abuse, domestic violence and mental issues are common problems addressed by the court, whose personnel and volunteers help make the participants aware of services available to them through the VA. Wednesday’s graduates stayed with the program.
“I’m so proud of your accomplishments,” said Tennessee Commissioner of Veterans Affairs Many-Bears Grinder, whose own military background includes 35 years of service. “This is the end of the program, but it’s really a beginning for you. You’ve already proven what you can do. Live it, dream it, go after it. You are achievers.”