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Florida county's intensive veterans court program needs mentors

By JOHN CHAMBLISS | The Ledger | Published: July 11, 2018

BARTOW, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Stephanie Robinson has seen the traumatic effects of war on veterans. She's attended a number of funerals for fellow soldiers during and after her service in Afghanistan.

The 28-year-old now wants to help fellow soldiers who face criminal charges in "Veterans Court," a three-year-old program in Polk County, Fla. designed to help veterans facing criminal charges.

Robinson was recently in the courtroom to observe the proceedings for veterans facing charges from drunken driving to domestic violence. She's applied to be a mentor in the program, which assists veterans who have had lingering problems with post-traumatic stress disorder or substance abuse.

"You've got to give back to your battle buddies," said Robinson, who served overseas for nine months in 2012 and 2013.

About 17 veterans who served in wars that ranged from Vietnam to Afghanistan are enrolled in the intensive program that involves weekly drug tests as part of their probation. The program, one of 23 in the state, requires veterans to undergo a mental evaluation before entering.

It currently has three mentors for the 17 enrolled. It's far fewer than the one mentor for one veteran that Daniel Penzien, president of the Polk chapter of Vietnam Veterans, said is needed.

Gulf War veteran Russell Jackson had his problems in the program, but the 56-year-old beamed with pride as County Judge Susan Barber announced his graduation from the program.

More than two years ago, the Desert Storm veteran faced a domestic violence charge after he went on a cocaine-fueled rage and followed his wife in his car, hit her window with a water bottle then rammed the car with his vehicle.

Jackson said he saw much violence during the Gulf War and suffered a severe shrapnel injury to his eye. He said he couldn't get over his anger issues and dependency on drugs until he signed up for the program.

The court connected him with a substance-abuse program and anger-management classes through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

He was sentenced to 36 months of probation, but the probation was dropped after completing the program. He now wants to be a peer specialist at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"I'm gonna hang this high," he said, pointing to a plaque he received.

Gary Clark, chairman of the Polk County Veterans Council, said many veterans are unaware of Veterans Court and the services offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

He and Penzien said it's gratifying to connect with veterans or take them to appointments.

"When they fall off, our deal is to get them back on," said Penzien, who did not know the rate of those falling back into trouble in the court system.

For those interested in becoming a mentor, there will be an orientation at 9 a.m. on July 20 in Barber's court room. To be a mentor in the program, you must also be a veteran.

©2018 The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.)
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