In veterans court, former servicemembers fight new battle
By DIANA NELSON JONES | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette | Published: August 25, 2018
PITTSBURGH — Sheriff's deputies steered three handcuffed men into Veterans Court one day this summer. The backs of their red jumpsuits read "Allegheny County Jail." One prisoner had doe eyes and long hair, resembling pictures of Christ.
He wore shackles around his ankles.
When he stood before Judge John Zottola, his eyes cast down, the judge cocked his head with a "What are we going to do with you?" expression on his face.
A probation officer said the young man, an Iraq War combat veteran, had absconded — a word that in court means fled — while under house arrest. The judge ordered a transfer to a Bath, N.Y., treatment center for veterans who suffer post-traumatic stress and addiction.
Seeing a veteran shackled in his own country is particularly unsettling when you realize jail may be where he is most safe. But most veterans in this court are not incarcerated. They have an out, as long as they check in with the probation officer, keep their records and urine clean and show up for court. The process of getting through three phases of good behavior takes a year.
Allegheny County Veterans Treatment Court is an acknowledgement that veterans deserve special consideration when they land in the criminal justice system. They are diverted into a side stream of the larger channel. If they have post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury on top of their violations, their treatment team can work to untangle these issues.
Judge Zottola, who meets before court with the parties of each day's hearing, describes it as "a problem solving court, with positive rewards and regular sanctions."
His courtroom hums with collaborative spirit. Before he calls the room to order, people mill about, sharing information. The hearings, too, are more casual than typical court proceedings.
"We are a team and we take a team approach to assist you," Judge Zottola says as he opens his sessions. "Please take advantage of that help.
"Would everyone on the team stand up?"
Seats creak as everyone in the jury box stands: probation officers, social workers, therapists, attorneys, outreach personnel from veterans' organizations, volunteer mentors. The team includes Jim Skal, founder of the weekend adventure program Outdoor Immersion, and Dante Works, a former probation officer who bought and renovated two six-bedroom homes for veterans to live in as they work through legal processes.
Judge Zottola encourages and praises many of the veterans who stand before him, saying things like, "You feel good? You look good;" ''See that? You go one way then you turn things around. That's something to be proud of," and "I can tell that you are a great guy."
He acknowledges that his authority is just part of the team effort, that the veterans on the team are critical to the court's effectiveness.
One veteran he calls on regularly is court mentor David Jacobs.
One day in court, a young man named Zack stood before the judge, who told him, "I think you need someone to encourage you." He looked to the jury box and said, "Dave Jacobs?"
Jacobs walked toward the bench.
"That man there is going to be your mentor," the judge told Zack. "This is part of your path."
Support and substances
At the county jail, inmates in the veterans' pod recently discussed the access they had in Iraq and Afghanistan to alcohol, heroin and opiates to cope with trauma, fear and anxiety — "as easy as getting Skittles at the 7-Eleven," said one — and the lure of these substances back home to subdue the same effects.
"The most effective means to feel no pain was drugs," said Scott, who did five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan in the Army. He asked that his last name not be used out of respect for his father, who has the same name. "I had no criminal record before" serving. "My addiction evolved. I had major trauma, but how I deal with that is still up to me."
He is in phase two in veterans court. He had been doing well, reporting regularly, getting praise from his probation officer until one day, he failed to report to court. When Judge Zottola saw him in his red jail suit, he was visibly distressed.
"A lot of people in Veterans Court thought highly of me," Scott said. "I'm working hard" to restore that esteem.
In July, he and John Knowles crossed paths during brief stints in jail for backsliding.
"They are pushing us to do the right thing," said Knowles, who served as a Marine in Afghanistan. He was a corporal, and Scott was a staff sergeant.
Both men are proud they were leaders, and each acknowledged disappointment at the diminution of their sense of self.
"For me to have any stability is to face my personal issues," said Scott, who has an undergraduate degree in English literature from the University of Pittsburgh. "With the resources Veterans Court gives you, if you fail, it's on you."
Knowles said his spiral began with DUIs. "Veterans Court has definitely helped me. I feel like you get a better shot there. When you get sent back (to jail) it's a wake-up call. You just get tired of letting people down."
Showing up for court, or any appointment, is the practice of an ordered mind. Brains disordered by sustained trauma remain stuck in reaction long afterward. This condition can sabotage a person's efforts to keep a schedule, and mentors, counselors and probation officers say they try to anticipate this predicament.
The veterans court debuted in Pittsburgh 2009.
"When I was doing mental health court," Judge Zottola said, "I learned that they had a Veterans Court in Buffalo, and I thought it would be a good thing to have here. We started with two individuals and now we have 60 or so" at any given time, graduating 30 a year.
Veteran Randy Levander of the Veterans' Leadership Program and Vietnam War veteran Ray Amelio, a Veterans Court mentor and mentor trainer, have helped establish veterans' courts in surrounding counties since 2009. There are about 300 in the nation.
Veterans are accepted for adjudication after review. Murderers and sex offenders are not considered.
The National Institutes of Health reported this year that participants in treatment courts nationally have consistently lower recidivism rates than traditional defendants. Other studies provide figures, all of which bear that out, but the figures vary because there are different kinds of treatment courts, whose research metrics and scope vary. Veterans' courts have different procedures, policies and recidivism measures as well.
Attorney Dan Kuntz teaches law students at Duquesne University and takes them to the team. Part of their curriculum is a class on mental health first aid.
"I want to educate my students about the signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury," he said. "The first responder may be an attorney. Police education would (help them) appreciate a situation" that might look like resistance to arrest but might be the panic of a trauma reaction.
"I've taught it to 130 attorneys over the last three years plus to law students," Mr. Kuntz said. "It is more about being anticipatory than reactive. We're trying to educate everyone who will listen."
Help and a higher purpose
Jacobs has been mentoring veterans for two years.
An Air Force veteran who was himself in the system for DUI arrests, he said he got clean by asking God for help when everything else failed. That help came, he said, and it continues to give him a higher purpose.
"My focus is to listen, stand with them when they call the case, have breakfast or coffee with them. Many just need someone to talk to."
He began mentoring youth who were abandoned by their parents, then he began mentoring at the jail, where he learned mentors were needed for a veterans' court.
"What's different about this court is the amount of grace that's afforded," he said. "I've had mentees who have had such anxiety and stress that they may overdose on meds. One ended up in the system because he robbed to get money" for meds. "I want to believe I helped him."
When a veteran stands before Judge Zottola, members of his or her support team make reports.
"He has been a stand-up resident," Works told the judge one day this summer of a veteran who lives in one of his houses in Homewood. "Getting regular drug tests, knocking it out of the park."
"You may be losing a tenant," the judge said, turning his smile on the veteran.
The next man heard this report from probation officer Josh Cote: "He's doing very well, your honor, and he's working three jobs part-time."
Judge Zottola assessed one veteran who stood before him and asked Mr. Skal, "Do you think he'd be good for your program?" Skal said yes, then the judge asked the veteran, "Is Outdoor Immersion something you think would help you?"
Skal said he is getting busier as his program reaches more veterans.
He was a mortgage consultant until six years ago, when he did an altruistic pivot "to give what I love to other people," he said. "I spent my childhood outdoors, and I say to veterans, 'Come out with me to canoe, gather 'round the campfire, throw rocks at sticks, tell your stories.'"
He said he took a veteran of the Iraq War for a weekend on the Youghiogheny River, hoping to convince him he had a chance at redemption.
"He said, 'Jim, I shot a kid (during combat) and I see his face every day.' I told him, 'You are not without grace, ever. There's forgiveness.'"
For all the honest efforts veterans make to help themselves, there's always that one whose dog ate the homework.
As one veteran's story devolved into an explanation that those drugs found on him?, someone had pressed them into his hand, the judge's face went slack.
"Six months down the drain," he said, exhaling as if it were his own defeat. "And I am perplexed by that."
When the judge believes the team is making more effort than the veteran is to help himself, he lowers the boom. One day, the punishment was a writing assignment.
"I want you to write a proposal as to why you should remain in Veterans Court," he told a veteran, "because this team has done a lot to help you, and you haven't done much to help yourself."
Later, in his chambers, the judge explained his decision: "Maybe by writing an essay, he will see that he is worth it."