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NH court sees veterans as more than defendants

By SHAWNE K. WICKHAM | The New Hampshire Union Leader, Manchester (Tribune News Service) | Published: June 14, 2015

Eight flags dignify the first-floor courtroom inside the 9th Circuit Court: the Stars and Stripes, the state flag, one for each branch of the armed forces and the black POW-MIA flag.

It's a powerful symbol that here, veterans are treated with the honor and respect that they've earned.

This is New Hampshire's first Veterans Behavioral Health Track court. Those who created it are determined it won't be the last.

Designed as an alternative sentencing track, the program helps veterans with mental health issues - such as post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or substance abuse - who end up in the criminal justice system get the services they need.

Participants sign contracts, agreeing to participate in treatment, attend weekly court sessions, refrain from alcohol and drugs, and attend individual and group counseling. The prosecutor, defense attorney and judge all have to agree that a particular defendant is appropriate for the program.

Jo Moncher, bureau chief of military programs for the state Department of Health and Human Services, facilitates the task force that started the Justice Involved Veterans initiative in 2013.

She calls it "a wonderful collaborative effort" among the judicial branch, VA Medical Center, New Hampshire National Guard and DHHS.

Best approach

Some states have created stand-alone specialty courts to handle veterans' cases. But with "zero funds" available, the team decided the best approach for New Hampshire was to create a veterans' track within the existing mental health court system, Moncher said.

Judge James Leary, who presides over the Nashua mental health court, agreed to pilot the new program, which started last August.

At a recent court session, Leary listened intently as Diane Levesque, veterans justice outreach coordinator for the VA Medical Center in Manchester, presented updates on those in the program. Some were arrested for DWI or other motor vehicle offenses; some for more serious crimes.

"How are your lungs?" Judge Leary asks George Cournoyer, a 77-year-old Navy veteran who flies an American flag from his wheelchair.

"Not as good as they used to be," Cournoyer replies.

The judge asks about an upcoming medical test and how things are going at the veterans' housing complex.

Cournoyer tells Leary he's practicing "mindfulness," as his treatment plan requires. "It's calming," he says.

Sold drugs

Later, Cournoyer told a reporter what got him in trouble: "I sold a fellow veteran some pills 'cause he was in pain.'?"

It turned out the guy was just using him. And Cournoyer got arrested for selling drugs. "He was a friend," he said mournfully. "We used to sit around and have coffee and talk."

Dan Bricker is a peer support specialist at the VA Medical Center in Manchester. "George, you are a great guy," he tells the older man. "You've been a hard-working man your whole life."

Bricker comes to every court session, greeting each veteran by name. "Always good to see you, brother," he tells them.

He reminds Cournoyer about an upcoming appointment and says he'll call with directions. "I just want to make your life easy," he says.

Cournoyer chuckles. "You gotta go back about 30 years to do that."

What makes this approach different from criminal court, Levesque said, is "it's looking for help as opposed to sending them to jail. To get them back on track with their lives."

Put them into programs

Her job is to connect veterans with all of the services the VA system can provide, from individual counseling and group therapy to housing and medical services.

Veterans who are not eligible for VA services can still get help through Easter Seals and the community mental health center, which are program partners.

Levesque said the most common diagnoses seen among veterans track participants are PTSD and depression. Some also have substance abuse issues.

In court, Levesque sometimes has to be the disciplinarian of the team, telling the judge when a defendant is not in compliance with his treatment plan. "That's my job," she said.

Levesque tells the judge that a defendant who's new to the program has missed two counseling appointments. "We have veterans waiting for these appointments," she says, as the young man stands sheepishly before the bench.

She's concerned the man, who was arrested for reckless driving and possession of marijuana, is only doing the program as "a free ticket out of jail," she says.

She directs her remarks to Leary, but it's clear the veteran is her intended audience. "He needs to understand he needs to follow through," she says.

Levesque said she and Leary work well together. "I might be kind of showing my tough love, and I think he balances that with compassion, and he keeps reminding people we're trying to help them," she said.

"People don't expect that from a judge. They expect a kick in the pants from the judge, and they're surprised to see: no, he's actually interested in them," she said.

Looking to expand

The Nashua program is still the state's only formal veterans track, but Moncher said other communities, notably in Grafton and Coos counties, are creating their own models to connect veterans who end up in court with the help they need.

She hopes a conference held Friday in Concord inspires others to follow suit. "We want this statewide," she said.

Here's her task force's definition of a veteran: "A veteran is someone who at one point in their life wrote a blank check, made payable to the United States of America, for up to and including their life."

And that's what drives the group's commitment to help veterans who get in trouble here at home, she said.

Patrick Clarke of Milford is an Army veteran of the first Persian Gulf War -"the practice war," he calls it, flashing a grin.

Clarke, 45, has medical problems from Persian Gulf disease and PTSD; he also has bipolar disorder and ADHD.

He was in a bad way a few months back; he got arrested for a domestic assault on the woman he was living with, who he said was a heroin addict. Sentenced to six months in jail, he was offered the veterans track instead.

Turned him around

It changed his life, Clarke said. "This was the godsend I was looking for."

"I really feel like these people are getting to know me and they really want me to succeed with this program, and they're not going to forget my name later," he said. "Instead of 'here's all the facts,' it's more like 'here's the person.'?"

Levesque got him into veterans housing and is working to get him benefits that are long overdue. He's going to therapy and has a new doctor helping him with his medical issues.

Clarke said he's come "leaps and bounds" in the couple of months he's been in the veterans track.

"With hope comes levity," he said. "You've got to have some kind of a chance for a better tomorrow in order to even think that way.

"That's what this program has done."

swickham@unionleader.com

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©2015 The New Hampshire Union Leader (Manchester, N.H.) Visit The New Hampshire Union Leader (Manchester, N.H.) at www.unionleader.com Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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