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Graduates of Illinois Veterans Court share stories to help others

By CHRIS GREEN | Rockford (Ill.) Register Star | Published: December 4, 2018

ROCKFORD, Ill. (Tribune News Service) — Returning from war and turning to drugs and alcohol to cope with war experiences and civilian life: The stories of Thomas Gilbert and Aaron Hayford are familiar, but thanks to a 6-year-old program that has operated with little fanfare, their stories did not end abruptly in incarceration or death.

The latest chapter in the lives of these two veterans featured a graduation Monday from Winnebago County Veterans Court.

The court is a specialized problem-solving court designed to address and eliminate the challenges of providing services to veterans caught in the criminal justice system who are wrestling with substance abuse and mental health issues related to their military service.

Although participation in the two-year program is optional, Hayford said, “It was either Veterans Court or prison. I did normal probation at first, but then I got a DUI.”

Hayford, an Army veteran and South Beloit resident, did two tours of duty in Afghanistan in 2008-09 and 2010-11. Upon returning to Winnebago County, he suffered from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and failed to seek help. “I covered up all my anger and sorrow with alcohol,” he said.

Hayford said he was not a willing participant in Veterans Court.

“At first, I was pushing back,” he said, “but then I gave in.

“This program is great. They make you get sober, which is the hardest part for a lot of people, but once you got even a month of sobriety under your belt, it gets to be a hundred times easier. I mean that was my hardest part.”

He said he was drinking excessively, but is now 22 months sober.

The program is unique in that veterans are able to participate in the court with pending and post-plea charges. The veterans receive case management provided by an outreach specialist who works through the Department of Veterans Affairs in Madison, Wis.

The program connects veterans with a variety of treatment services available through VA offices in Rockford and in Madison, including drug and alcohol treatment and mental health treatment. Veterans also receive services from the Resource Intervention Center and community-based services.

Gilbert, a Marine, said substance abuse led him into the court system, but he embraced the program and finished in 18 months.

“It’s very involved,” he said. “We attend groups and classes at the VA outpatient clinic here in Rockford. Every day, we get up and have to call the drop line daily. You have to drop numerous times each month. Also, we come to court, initially, every two weeks, and see our probation officer every two weeks. Then we stretch it out to once a month as time goes on.”

Hayford and Gilbert shared their stories in hopes of helping other vets.

“It takes a much stronger person to ask for help than to play John Wayne,” said Presiding Veterans Court Judge Stephen Balogh.

He added, “The thing about Veterans Court is that it works. Not only does it help the people in the program to recover, to regain their lives, it offers an alternative to incarceration by reducing recidivism and improving public safety. And it costs less than it costs to house people in jails and prisons. That’s why we do this.”

©2018 Rockford Register Star, Ill.
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