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Special court for veterans in Florida educates community about PTSD

By JOE CALLAHAN | The Ocala Star-Banner | Published: March 5, 2019

OCALA, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Sgt. Jason White, an Ocala native, had just retired from the U.S. Marine Corp in 2014 after serving 10 years and two tours in Iraq.

White, 33, who was in the Florida foster care system as a child, arrived home to his wife of five years and his 5-year-old daughter, both of whom were strangers due to his service, White shared on Tuesday.

White has been battling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) ever since he returned home.

When he returned home, he had many tell-tale stressors. Besides childhood trauma from his time in foster care, he stressed about being a husband to a wife he had never lived with and a father to a child he barely knew.

Those struggles led him down a dark road, he noted. Erratic behavior and substance abuse led to a divorce, which he said devastated him.

All that changed a couple of years ago. An incident with his ex-wife led him to court on a misdemeanor charge and subsequently into the open arms of officials with the Marion County Veteran's Treatment Court.

White says treatment court, founded nearly seven years ago, provided the headlights to help steer him off that long, winding dark road.

Today, he has joint custody of his daughter and now helps veterans as a Florida outreach coordinator for the PTSD Foundation of America.

"There is no doubt that my time in the Marion County Veteran's Treatment Court saved my life," White said on Tuesday after he listened to a PTSD seminar organized by Marion County Veteran's Treatment Court.

The seminar was called "Understanding PTSD: A Guide For Our Community Veterans and Their Families." The guest speaker was Jeffrey Bates.

Bates, who earned a doctorate in psychology from the University of Georgia in 2003, is the acting associate director for the Office of Academic Affiliations (Associated Heath Education) for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Bates is an Ocala resident who has worked for a decade with the VA's North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System, which is based in Gainesville.

His 90-minute speech, which included a few minutes of question and answers, focused on PTSD, which will affect 1 in 10 Americans in their lifetime.

Bates explained the evolution of what today is called PTSD. After the Civil War, doctors thought the behavior was due to a heart ailment. PTSD was called "shell shock" after World War I. It wasn't until 1980 that the term PTSD was adopted.

Bates noted that doctors and communities better understand the issue that is affecting many veterans' lives.

"With time we better understand how to diagnose it and how to treat it," said Bates, who urged people to visit Veterans Affairs (www.ptsd.va.gov) for more details.

Bates also incorporates suicide prevention information into his talks. In recent years, as veterans receive counseling, veteran suicides have dropped from 22 per day to 20.4 daily.

"Many of these suicides involve veterans who are not receiving VA services," he noted.

Bates' speech was one of many "lunch and learn" seminars hosted by the Marion County Veteran's Treatment Court each year.

The mission of the treatment court is to provide services for veterans who have been diagnosed with PTSD, traumatic brain injury, substance abuse issues or other psychological issue.

The veteran who is charged with a crime must plead guilty and complete at least a year of counseling and other services ordered by the court

Each month, the veteran appears before County Judge Jim McCune. During those monthly hearings, a mentor of each veteran shares a progress report.

If the veteran completes the program, the charges are dropped. If the veteran does not complete the program, they can be sentenced to jail or probation, depending on the crime.

McCune said Tuesday that the community events sponsored by the Marion County Veteran's Treatment Court are important.

"It's a community issue," said McCune of the fact so many veterans struggle when they return home. "We want to be a community who cares."

One veteran currently enrolled in treatment court is Joseph Minniti, who was arrested on a felony dealing in stolen property charge last year.

Minniti, 64, who was a Vietnam combat veteran in 1971-75, is currently in a GED program at Marion Technical College. Minniti said one main reason for his lifestyle change is for his 10-year-old child, Jordan, who lives with him.

Another attendee, Bob Gross, is a mentor as part of the treatment court. Gross, 69, has PTSD that has affected his entire life. He has struggled with substance abuse and holding down a job in his younger years, he noted.

Gross, a combat wounded Marine, is still upset about the way American soldiers were treated when they came home from Vietnam. Gross said Bates' speech was on target.

"There are so many veterans out there who are not getting services," Gross noted.

Johnny Valentine, a case manager and program coordinator for the treatment court, is also a veteran of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and also struggles with PTSD.

"This (veteran's court) is personal to me," Valentine noted. "We are trying to educate the entire community."

White said it was Valentine who ultimately helped him through his darkest days just months after he launched his tenure in treatment court.

White said his substance abuse issues resurfaced and Valentine told him needed more intense counseling. White said he traveled to Texas to attend Camp Hope. After four months of therapy, he returned to Marion County and was hired last fall by the PTSD Foundation of America.

"I am here because of Johnny and the Marion County Veteran's Treatment Court," said White, who acknowledged that Bates' speech triggered some of his PTSD symptoms.

White said the speech was the best, most unique PTSD presentation that he has heard. White said Bates addressed areas rarely discussed.

"We are all working through them (PTSD issues), day by day," White said.

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