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Veterans in trouble celebrate completion of special court program

Carolin Maples was overcome with emotion as she stood Thursday in front of a packed Ventura, Calif., courtroom.

Dressed in a tailored black suit and heels, the 53-year-old woman’s voice cracked at times as she spoke into a microphone and recounted the last time she was inside “the cage” wearing county jail blue and orange garb.

Maples, an Army veteran, said her life spiraled out of control when she started to heavily use methamphetamine after memories of sexual abuse she suffered at age 25 resurfaced. Suffering from episodes of anxiety attacks, Maples said she tried to dull the pain by drowning herself in drugs.

Standing in front of judges, parole officers, prosecutors and defense attorneys Thursday, she said her road to recovery was made possible by many people in the court’s Veterans Intervention Program.

“Let me take you back to the last time I was arrested, on Dec. 8, 2011 ... the 10th time I was arrested that year,” Maples said as she wiped tears from her eyes. “I had given up hope and was hell bent on destroying my life. But all of that was about to change. As I went to court date after court date and hearing my charges stack up, I knew my life was going to change.

“What I didn’t know was it was going to be the toughest and most rewarding time of my life.”

Maples was among 13 military veterans who were the first “class” of graduates from the Ventura County Superior Court’s Veterans Intervention Program. Started about three years ago, the program is a cooperative effort among various county entities, including courts, the District Attorney’s and Public Defender’s offices, the Probation Agency and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The program allows veterans facing criminal charges to participate in mental health, drug and alcohol treatment and learn life skills. Incarcerated veterans who chose to participate must plead guilty to at least one of the charges filed against them and appear in court to show their progress. In return, they can avoid jail time.

Judge Colleen Toy-White, who presides over “Veterans Court,” said Thursday’s graduation was a milestone for the program and the culmination of three years of hard work.

“This court is designed for the veterans who have honorably served their county and who have suffered from either psychological or physical injury that was caused by their military service, and as a result have been charged with a crime,” Toy-White said.

Gary Erickson, vice chairman of the Gold Coast Veterans Foundation, said there were only 44 veterans courts throughout the country about three years ago when Ventura County started its program. Today, there are more than 100.

The county’s program and others suffered some setbacks during the economic downturn and state cuts to court funding but bounced back with financial backing from the Smith Foundation, Erickson said.

“When we talk about, ‘It takes a village,’ it really does,” said Erickson. “This came together because the people in this room worked together to make it happen.”

Jose Navarrette agreed. The Oxnard native and Marine veteran said the court program saved his life.

Navarrette, 33, said he amassed an extensive rap sheet that included drug charges, commercial robberies, and auto theft before he was given the opportunity to participate in the program.

The father of four kids, Navarrette was moved to tears Thursday as he stood in front of officials whom he once saw as his nemesis. Today, Navarrette works at a Pavillions store in Los Angeles and has been drug-free for 15 months, he said.

“A year ago when I started the program ... I was trying to come back to society ... but it seemed like everyone was shooting me down,” Navarrette said as he choked back tears. “Nobody wanted to give me a chance and I was giving up on myself.

“I just feel good to come here today sober and share my story. I’m living proof it does work.”

Ronald Dixon, 43, smiled as he looked at a commemorative coin that Toy-White handed to him during the ceremony. The words courage, honor and integrity are carved on one side of the coin.

Dixon, a father of five and a former Navy Seabee, said the program saved not only his life but his marriage and family.

Dixon said his drinking problem took him into a downward spiral. He was incarcerated for DUI in 2011.

“I didn’t realize I had a problem until I got into the program,” Dixon said. “In the military, drinking was such a regular thing ... something that everyone did.”

Through the guidance of court and law enforcement officials as well as his treatment program, Dixon said, he is sober and back in school learning computerized office procedures.

“It feels good ... a sense of accomplishment ... and it helped my whole life,” Dixon said.

Maples said it was a bit surreal to hug judges and shake the hands of prosecutors whom she once viewed as adversaries. She is still in a treatment program for post-traumatic stress disorder but said she plans to soon move into a condo with a friend.

“I feel so happy,” Maples said. “This is a new start for me.”

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