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Veterans Court provides support, but not a free pass

By KRISTINE GOODRICH | The Free Press, Mankato, Minn. (TNS) | Published: February 10, 2019

MANKATO, Minn. (Tribune News Service) — Veterans fist-bumped their case manager and mentors as they approached the bench Friday.

And at times, Judge Mark Betters sounded more like he was talking to a friend than a criminal defendant.

The judge cracked jokes as he asked one participant in the 5th Judicial District Veterans Court about his vacation plans, another about how he is recovering from an injury and another about how he is liking his new job.

At other times, Betters had to remind veterans they still had work to do.

He reminded the veteran who was headed to Las Vegas that he will be required to take a drug test when he returns.

He ordered another veteran who recently failed a drug test to complete eight hours of community service and resume attendance of a weekly sobriety support group.

The Veterans Court is designed for veterans and current military members who are dealing with addiction, PTSD and other mental health issues.

The Blue Earth County Justice Center is home to one of a dozen veterans courts across Minnesota. Started in 2013, it serves veterans primarily from seven counties in south-central Minnesota. It also accepts veterans from other counties that do not have a veterans court.

A Minneapolis nonprofit called the Veterans Defense Project is pushing lawmakers to expand restorative justice programs for veterans to all parts of the state. Gov. Tim Walz said last month he backs the idea.

The local veterans court has 26 current participants and 54 graduates.

The voluntary program holds veterans accountable while helping them access services, said coordinator Kevin Mettler.

“A lot of these veterans don't want to ask for help. Our goal is to hook them up to as many services as we can,” Mettler said.

Army National Guard veteran Aaron Morgan of Mankato said his life “would probably be in a cesspool” if not for the Veterans Court.

In 2017 Morgan was convicted of a domestic assault that he says was fueled by substance abuse.

After more than a year of sobriety, he told Betters Friday about a relapse during a fishing trip. The judge responded with orders for more stringent drug and mental health treatment and drug testing. The judge also gave Morgan accolades for his honesty.

“Even when they have to drop the hammer, they are there to support you,” Morgan told The Free Press.

Court staff develop objectives for each participant as they enter the program, often including attending treatment and finding stable housing and employment. A team of court staff and veterans services and community partners meet regularly with the participants to provide resources.

The participants must appear before Betters monthly or bimonthly to talk about their progress.

“It's not about punishment, it's about getting us vets the help we need,” said participant Chris Thissen of Waseca.

The Marine Corps veteran has struggled with PTSD and joined the program after he was charged with recklessly firing a gun. He said he appreciates the support for dealing with any life challenge he is having from “other veterans who get it.”

The Veterans Court doesn't have rigid eligibility requirements or provide a guarantee that participants will be granted a more lenient sentence, Mettler said.

The court accepts veterans facing legal issues ranging from misdemeanor traffic offenses to felony drug charges, if the prosecutor and judge consent.

Participants often join once they have decided to plead guilty but before they are sentenced. Mettler said Veterans Court is not a substitution for the jail time, probation or other traditional punishment they might face, it is a supplement. A judge might be more apt to give a break to a Veterans Court participant, but there is no guarantee.

There is no set timeline for graduating from the program. They earn a certificate and a party once they have accomplished all of their goals.

Thissen said he is on track to graduate in a few months and then would like to return as a mentor.

Each participant is paired with a veteran volunteer who stands beside them at each court appearance and provides guidance outside of the courthouse.

Mentor coordinator Jack Zimmerman said each relationship is different depending on the mentee's needs and interest. Some pairs talk every day.

The court is looking for additional mentors. The only requirements, Zimmerman said, is an honorable discharge from any branch of the military and a willingness to “do anything you can do to help (court participants) be successful.”

Tammy Mason was one of the first Veterans Court graduates and now serves as a mentor and activity coordinator. She organizes monthly events for participants, graduates and mentors that aim to provide a healthy form of entertainment while creating camaraderie.

“They realize that you are trying to really help them,” she said of new participants. “We become like a family.”

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©2019 The Free Press (Mankato, Minn.)

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