The few, the proud, the Marines who got help at a Minn. veterans court

Local municipalities across the country are establishing veterans courts like this one in Indianapolis, to leverage resources to help deal with veteran offenders and reduce recidivism rates.


By RUBEN ROSARIO | Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn. (Tribune News Service) | Published: July 9, 2015

You can take the man out of the Marines but never the Marines out of the man. I know this well, given the number of folks I know who served in "the few, the proud" branch. But it was refreshing to be reminded of it this week during my conversation with Tar (Tim) Po of St. Paul.

I'm called a lot of names over the phone. A few are actually pretty nice. But "sir" is a rarity outside of restaurants. Po, 29, is true-blue Semper Fi, though he was honorably discharged and returned to civilian life seven years ago.

He served 14 months in Afghanistan and Iraq at the height of the conflict. Then came a 2005 IED explosion while he was on patrol in Ramadi, Iraq, during the Ramadan observance. He suffered a traumatic brain injury and serious shrapnel wounds to his arm and leg. He lost so much blood that doctors initially thought they might have to amputate.

Po prayed. He healed well from his physical wounds, but the mental scars? Not so much. They lingered like lint on a wool sweater. Adjusting back to civilian life was tough. PTSD, later diagnosed, did more damage to the rocky transition, "but I wasn't the kind to seek help," he told me. When you have that mindset and are then trained to suck it up, reaching out is a tough about-face.

He partied and drank hard to self-medicate. That got him two DWIs -- the second one a felony last year after he was stopped by a state trooper while driving back to St. Paul on Interstate 35E from a bar binge outing.

'Not deliberate criminals'

But Po lucked out. He was a prime candidate for Ramsey County's Veteran Court, a 19-month-old voluntary alternative-sentencing effort being replicated across the Twin Cities and the nation in recent years. He realized his destructive lifestyle was leading him down a dead-end street.

On Thursday, Po and three other veterans will become the first to graduate from the program and be honored at a ceremony. Sober since the bust, Po is flying straight and pursuing a nursing degree at Anoka-Ramsey Community College this fall. He sounded like a paid program pitchman over the phone:

"Sir, I can tell you that it is amazing. This was perfect for me."

The court was established in December 2013 as a way to deal with vets whose lawbreaking has some viable connection to the adverse consequences of their service. There are currently 32 program participants. Five have washed out since the program began.

"The argument that this is a two-tier justice system, that we are giving these veterans an undeserved benefit or break, doesn't hold much water for me," said Dustin Rockow, the Veteran Court coordinator at the courthouse who also supervises the machinations of the Drug, DWI and Mental Health courts.

This is more than a cause for Rockow. He is also a member of the Minnesota National Guard who was deployed to Kuwait.

"Believe me, veterans are the last to want something special done for them because of their service," he said. "They are not deliberate criminals who willingly break the law."

Serving vets who served their country

Kim Bingham, a hard-nosed county prosecutor involved in the Veterans Court since its inception, agrees.

"This isn't a 'get out of jail free card' program," she told me.

"This is a program that requires accountability and it's a collaborative goal by both the team and the veteran to make sure that the needs of the veterans are met and that public safety is served at the end. But it's all about them -- the veterans. They're the ones really who are doing the heavy lifting."

To comply with the program, Po peed into a cup twice a week. He had to spend at least 40 hours a week engaging in a productive activity. He took part in an outpatient chemical-dependency treatment program at the VA center in Minneapolis. He had to satisfy other conditions set forth by a collaborative team that includes county judges, prosecutors, public defenders, community corrections probation agents, and others.

Most important: He had to satisfy himself to stay on the right path.

"At every step along the line, people could have said that we can't do this, or we can't afford to do this," said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi. The Veterans Court initiative has been funded so far by a $350,000 federal justice assistance grant and state funding appropriations.

"I believe that it is great that we are able to do this," Choi added. "What they are dealing with are some of the collateral consequences of their service to their country. We are trying to make sure that they are entitled to every benefit while also trying to achieve justice."

Court grads have college plans

Other graduates include fellow former Marine and DWI offender Chris Hvinden, who deployed to Iraq and also saw duty during humanitarian trips to the Horn of Africa, Louisiana and Ukraine. He is a member of Operation 23 to Zero, a group dedicated to combating veteran and military suicide. (Why the name? An estimated 22 veterans and 1 active-duty service member commit suicide every day, according to the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs.)

Charles King, another veteran graduate, works full-time at a tire shop and plans to pursue college.

Veteran Michael Husnick, charged with a domestic-related offense, completed chemical dependency and domestic abuse related treatment and therapy. He graduated in April, but will attend the ceremony. He is working on a master's degree in industrial organizational psychology at Argosy University in Eagan. He continues to serve in the Army National Guard and regards his mentor, a retired Minneapolis cop, as one of his most influential inspirations during his time in the program.

"Sir," Po told me, "I'm glad that (trooper) stopped me that day. I could have easily hurt someone. It reinforced in me that I had to make a change."

There goes that "sir" again. Oorah.


©2015 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.)
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