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Veterans Court: 'It was a blessing'

By REBECCA R. BIBBS | The Herald Bulletin, Anderson, Ind. (TNS) | Published: October 30, 2017

ANDERSON, Ind. (Tribune News Service) — In 20 years of service with the U.S. Army, Patrick Weber never got into trouble.

But in 2012, after three deployments to Iraq that resulted post-traumatic stress disorder from explosions by improvised explosive devices, the Anderson resident found himself in the Madison County Jail charged with criminal confinement.

That was around the time Madison County Circuit Court 5 established Veterans Court, a program that gives a second chance to those who have served our country and have had run-ins with the law. Weber applied to the program.

“They don’t just let everybody in … I never served any time, and the charges were dropped when I completed Veterans Court,” he said. “It was a blessing.”

Weber was required to show up for treatment at a Veterans Administration hospital and report his progress to the court every two weeks.

“Being in Veterans Court, he held me accountable. I showed up for court. I showed up for my appointments,” he said. “It’s definitely benefited me. It’s definitely gotten me to where I am today.”

The structure felt familiar, Weber said.

“That’s primarily why I liked Veterans Court. It was kind of like being in the military,” he said.

“For me, that is important because I completed that court,” he said.

Weber continues to attend his weekly PTSD group meetings.

He also is enrolled at Ball State University, where he is one semester away from earning his degree in social work. He hopes to help others veterans.

Eric Dunagan, veterans justice outreach coordinator in Madison, Delaware and Henry counties for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said when the program began, he was taken aback by the number of veterans in need of assistance from the court. Most had served in Iraq and Afghanistan, though a few had served in Vietnam, he said.

“You come back to this country, you’re in a throwaway system,” he said.

Madison Circuit Court 5 Judge Thomas Clem said he helped start the court because veterans deserve a second chance. Madison County’s Veterans Court was one of the first such problem-solving courts in the state, he added.

“Since then, they’ve been growing, and there’s been a push to get them established in all counties,” he said.

Though other problem-solving courts, such as Drug Court and Mental Health Court are under one umbrella, Veterans Court stands alone because it was started at a different time and is provided at no cost to the county, Clem said.

“This program is provided as a benefit that veterans earn,” he said.

About 100 veterans in Madison County have been served by the program.

The court takes a comprehensive approach to helping the veterans. In addition to oversight by the court, Clem said, veterans are given a variety of services, from addiction and mental health counseling to housing and education.

“Housing is a big one. A lot of veterans in this situation are homeless,” he said.

Because it’s relatively new in Indiana, Clem said, recidivism rates have not been tracked. However, court records show that to date, the program has had only one repeat offender.

Court 5 recorder Lisa Stewart helps administer the program for the court. As a mother of two Navy veterans, she said it’s a labor of love.

“I’m seeing men who are having their lives changed, and I don’t just mean from a medical standpoint,” she said. “That’s what I like about it. I like to see people’s lives changed to where they deserve to be.”

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©2017 The Herald Bulletin (Anderson, Ind.)

Visit The Herald Bulletin (Anderson, Ind.) at www.theheraldbulletin.com

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