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Illinois treatment court offers vets help, redemption

Louis Merchat, an Army veteran, was one of 23 graduates of the Lake County Veterans' Treatment Court.

JAVONTE ANDERSON / POST-TRIBUNE

By JAVONTE ANDERSON | The Post-Tribune (Tribune News Service) | Published: May 12, 2017

After robbing a bank two years ago, Louis Merchat sat in his car and waited for police to arrive. He wasn't after money.

"I was either going to get my head blown off, or I was going to get something done," said Merchat, 65, an Army veteran. "One way or the other, I was going to get some help."

Merchat ended up at the Lake County Veterans Treatment Court. And after a two-year journey, Merchat and 22 others graduated May 10.

"The court is trying to help the veterans that have had issues because of any kind of combat they've experienced," said Judy Love, treatment court coordinator.

It provides counseling and treatment for substance abuse, anger management, psychological problems and post-traumatic stress disorder. Those who complete the program, which is monitored through Lake County Community Corrections, can have criminal charges dismissed or reduced.

"This is a chance to help veterans work through their issues," said Judge Julie Cantrell, who presides over the veterans' cases. "I pride myself in being their cheerleader, their mom, their counselor, their baby sitter, at times when they need it. It's very important for me to be able to be a compassionate judge in these circumstances. "

The chance for redemption is important, veterans say.

"If it weren't for this program, I'd be locked up," said Kenneth Baker, a nine-year Navy veteran whose battery charge was dismissed. "I had some anger management problems, and they got me some help. ... Second chances don't come around too often."

The program requires that every participant be paired with a mentor, all of whom also are veterans.

"Mentors are a vital component to what we do," Cantrell said. "They need someone to talk to, someone to vent to and someone who's walked a mile in their boots."

Mentor Luis Rodriguez said participants need somebody to confide in, to have someone they can talk to on a personal level and confide in.

"I have a lot of problems, too, as a Vietnam vet, so I can relate to them," he said. "So now that I'm older and a little bit wiser, I can counsel him and say, 'Hey, man, this is the right path. The bottle is not the answer.' "

Veterans can join the treatment program if they have an honorable, less than honorable or general discharge, Love said. Those charged with or convicted of murder, level 1 or class A felonies, violent level 2 or class B felonies, or crimes against children, are not eligible, she said.

The most important part of the program is that it serves as a springboard to help veterans rebound after making a mistake, mentor Tommy Brewer said..

"It's exciting because you start seeing young men who once got in trouble begin to get their life back," he said. "You can't beat this program. You really can't."

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©2017 the Post-Tribune (Merrillville, Ind.)
Visit the Post-Tribune (Merrillville, Ind.) at www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune
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