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New court in Memphis designed to help veterans in trouble

Seated around a table is Judge Bill Anderson Jr., the court's coordinator Curt Wilson, three Veterans Affairs officials, two state prosecutors and a public defender. Nearby are several mentors and representatives from private drug and alcohol treatment facilities.

The team evaluates the status of each of the 21 veterans entered in the new court designed to help vets get out of trouble.

"I myself had some problems for several years after I came home from Vietnam, and there was nothing like a Veterans Court," said mentor Bob Croslow, who wears a long gray ponytail and a jacket with "Vietnam Veteran" on the back.

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"To me it's an honor to be asked to mentor and to serve that court. It's just a way to try to get them back into being productive members of society and to get them back with their families."

When the meeting is through, the veterans are brought into the courtroom as the judge and other members of the treatment team inquire about their progress, counseling sessions, group meetings, job prospects, home life and, in many cases, their sobriety and drug screens.

"We've left 'treatment' out of Veterans Court so they don't think there's a stigma to being in the program," said coordinator Wilson, a Vietnam veteran and longtime county employee who came out of retirement to help get the five-month-old court on its feet.

"A lot of these guys are pretty fragile. We're getting some out of jail and some who would have ended up going to prison. If we deal with them now, it will save money in the long run and save a lot of heartache."

Each day Wilson gets a jail list of four or five new arrestees identified as veterans. Only about a third have been eligible for assignment to the Veterans Court and diverting those cases from the criminal justice maze can be a challenge in itself.

Those charged with serious violent crimes and some other offenses such as child abuse are not eligible for Veterans Court, but otherwise the goal is to divert vets' cases to the special court, address their underlying problems and eventually get the case expunged.

A charge of drunken driving, a common offense in this program, may get reduced to reckless driving, but not expunged because of the need to discourage repeat offenders. Drug abuse, mental issues and domestic violence are other common problems addressed by the court. Some of the vets have been identified as high risks for suicide.

So far all of vets in court have been men. While most of the problems may not be directly related to military service, Wilson said, the country still owes the servicemen a debt of gratitude.

"He may have been a cook at Fort Hood or he may have been in combat and been deployed three times," Wilson said, "We still need to make them aware of services available to them through the VA (Veterans Affairs.)

"A lot of vets don't know what help is out there. We're seeing veterans now with problems that have not been addressed for years."

Richie Ingram, 45, a Desert Storm-era Army veteran, credits the Veterans Court with pointing his life in the right direction.

"All my stuff started running down hill," said Ingram, who was laid off from his emergency medical technician job after a driving-under-the-influence charge. "I lost my house, I lost my job. I'm just basically trying to get my life back together."

His case was reduced to reckless driving, but he must abide by conditions of the court, including twice-weekly counseling sessions, to have the charge dismissed.

"As long as you stay straight and work with these people, they can help you," said Ingram, whose years in artillery left him partially deaf. "I want to stand up on my own two feet."

Since Anchorage, Alaska, established the first court solely for veterans in 2004, there now are some 120 veterans' courts around the country, with at least 100 more in the planning stages. There are more than 22.2 million veterans nationwide.

Locally, the average age for a court participant is 43, but officials believe that average will drop when younger veterans return from the service as wars in Afghanistan and Iraq wind down, said Wilson.

"We're expecting a big influx and I expect PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) will be a big deal," he said, adding that veteran mentors -- who themselves are carefully screened -- improve treatment and recovery in the assigned cases. "They have common experiences and can communicate more easily with clients. You don't have to have the illness to treat the disease, but having a common experience is helpful."

The court opened July 16, and results are being measured in small weekly battles.

"We're taking baby steps," said Judge Anderson, who also presides over General Sessions Criminal Court Division 7. "We want to get it right."

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