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Wisconsin Veterans court program running at capacity

LA CROSSE, Wis. — Two tours in Iraq left John suffering post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism.

He was a successful retired U.S. Army master sergeant who found himself home and in trouble with the law. A family member searching for resources discovered the La Crosse Area Veterans Court Program.

John, who spoke on condition his real name not be used because of the sensitivity of his situation, was accepted into the specialized treatment court after taking responsibility for a felony drunken driving offense.

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Similar to a drug court, the veterans court seeks to rehabilitate offenders through treatment programs rather than simply punish them with fines or jail.

John’s management plan meant intense mental health treatment for PTSD and alcohol testing.

Today, he’s sober, active in his church and a full-time student — all a testament to the veterans court program, he said.

“I have done everything asked of me and then some,” the 44-year-old said. “The program is set up for success. You want to succeed.”

Now two years old, the court is treating its first group of six veterans and preparing for another four. Operating without funds and an all-volunteer staff, the program has already reached capacity.

The demand for the court’s services will only continue to increase as soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan recognize they’re suffering from addiction and behavioral health problems that contributed to their arrest.

“The needs continue, but we can’t support those needs anymore,” program coordinator Thom Downer said. “We want to grow so we’re here to support them. They’re going to need it.”

The court became a non-profit organization in June in part so organizers could apply for grants to help it expand, Downer said.

“I think we’ll keep seeing people dealing with these issues,” said La Crosse County Circuit Judge Todd Bjerke, who oversees the veterans court. “We’ll save resources, money and people will be safer if we help them get rid of the problems they’re dealing with.”

The treatment court helps veterans and service members suffering from PTSD, depression, traumatic brain injury or substance abuse that led to criminal behavior.

After a veteran enters a plea in a criminal case, a support team prepares a plan to treat the diagnosed illness, establish sobriety and secure veteran benefits, among other goals.

It’s an intense process designed to improve veterans’ health and reduce recidivism. The program takes 18 to 24 months to complete.

“We’re not here to circumvent the legal system. We’re here to support the veterans,” Downer said. “Veterans court is sort of like their last chance. If they can’t get through the program, they go back to the presiding judge and the sentence is carried out.”

The court typically serves veterans in La Crosse, Vernon, Monroe and Jackson counties, although it has accepted cases from other counties. Most of those enrolled are in their late 20s and 30s, have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan and suffer from PTSD or alcoholism, Downer said.

“The people in there really need the structure of the court,” Bjerke said.

Participants in the court meet monthly and may be required to undergo daily alcohol and drug testing and counseling and perform community service, Downer said.

He’s fielded calls from Winona, Minn., to Los Angeles looking to establish a similar court. Downer helped start similar programs in Racine and Sheboygan counties.

The veterans court and its companion program, the La Crosse Area Veterans Mentor Program, have served 69 veterans since inception, Downer said.

The program pairs veterans with a mentor, a fellow veteran, who can help veterans after arrest, not disposition of their case.

“It’s a peer support group,” Downer said.

The program works because it reaches veterans early in the process, Bjerke said. The mentor can encourage the veteran to undergo an evaluation.

“They’ll explain that they’re not less of a person because they have a problem,” Bjerke said.

Organizers now hope to add more mentors to the program.

“They more we have,” Bjerke said, “the further we can reach.”

John, who was assigned to a military team that invesigates fraud, waste and abuse, welcomed the chance to enroll in veterans court once he learned PTSD contributed to his alcoholism. The diagnosis helped explain his out-of-character criminal behavior.

“I was put on a very tight leash, which I totally agree with,” he said. “I wanted to prove myself.”

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