Special court helps veterans with post-war troubles
By FRANK STANFIELD | Daily Commercial | Published: November 12, 2017
TAVARES, Fla. (Tribune News Service) – Daniel Bever, beaming and clutching a "graduation" certificate in his hand, practically skipped out of the courtroom — a highly unusual sight for someone who has just come out of a court-ordered program.
"It was a positive experience for me. It changed my life," said Bever, the applause from a roomful of veterans, lawyers and caseworkers still ringing in his ears.
The experience he was talking about was Veterans Court, which can either keep someone from having a criminal record or provide probation for someone who has been sentenced.
"It's like being reborn," said Garry Domnisse, the head volunteer mentor.
Not only do veterans get a chance to steer clear of trouble, but they are linked with counselors and caseworkers at the Veterans Administration to get benefits they might not have been aware of.
"We owe these people," said Jana Quash, who coordinates the program. "I wish they had this program 21 years ago when my husband's friends got out of the military," she said.
One of the most common struggles for combat veterans is post-traumatic stress disorder. Symptoms can range from nightmares to flashbacks, depression, anxiety and other problems. It gets worse when people try to "self-medicate."
The Wounded Warriors charity estimates that 540,000 veterans suffer from PTSD because of extreme trauma or a life-threatening event, including 1-out-of-5 Iraq-Afghanistan veterans.
Circuit Judge Mark Nacke, who presides over Veterans Court, notes that PTSD is the most common enemy the veterans face.
Nacke was a Marine aboard a helicopter ship during the Vietnam War. A former assistant public defender, he is firm but measured and a fan of the program.
He is quick to praise graduates like Bever, but on a recent day he was forced to issue a warrant for a no-show on probation, and he sent a young woman to jail when she declined to participate.
The cases can include third-degree felonies — usually nonviolent — like driving under the influence or with a suspended license, though it can include some misdemeanor battery cases and domestic violence.
"I made a mistake," Bever said. "I hit my wife. I had never hit anyone before in my life."
Married for 20 years, they were in the process of getting a divorce, which would have left Bever, who battles cancer, homeless.
"When I was in jail I was lost. I couldn't talk to my wife. There was a no-contact victim order. I have short-term memory, so I couldn't remember any of my friends' numbers. I don't have that many friends anyway. I met a black gentleman who told me, 'You need to go home, get on your knees and beg for forgiveness. Then, you need to get out of here and go back to your nice, white life, because this is no place for you. They will eat you alive in here.'"
"When I got out of jail I had no idea she would still be at home. She could have blocked me from coming home. Someone talked to her when I was in jail, probably her father," he said.
The program put him in touch with an anger-management class and they assigned a mentor.
"It saved my marriage," he said. Having a mentor was a real plus.
"I'm a sailor," he said. "He is a sailor," he said of Domnisse, who retired from the Coast Guard.
Bever was in the Navy from 1977 to 1983, and was on a destroyer in the Persian Gulf during the embassy hostage crisis in Iran.
Defense attorneys and prosecutors, who spend their lives disagreeing, agree veterans court is a success.
"Far and away this is the best program I've seen in 35 years of practicing law," said public defender Michael Graves.
The program works because success is earned. "It's more intensive than any other type of diversion program," said Assistant State Attorney Walter Forgie.
The probation is also more stringent than community control, the highest form of probation.
Lake County's legislators and county commissioners obtained $200,000 for the program that has served 13 vets since it began in January. Two have graduated, and one left the program.
It actually saves taxpayers money when you consider the cost of jail, treatment, lost wages and shattered families, said Jeff Fuller, public information officer for the 5th Judicial Circuit. "If all 11 complete the program it will be a total cost avoidance of $1,047,250," he said.
"I learned my lesson," Bever said. "I want to take my wife to Paris for our anniversary."
©2017 Daily Commercial, Leesburg, Fla.
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