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Glen Bumgardner, a volunteer mentor for Veterans Court, talks about his experiences with the program. Veterans courts are designed for veterans charged with criminal offenses whose actions appear to stem from the stresses of military service.

TOMMY MARTINO, Missoulian

The phrase they use for Missoula Veterans Court mentors like Glen Bumgardner is "trusted friends."

That's because the 65-year-old veteran and 13 others like him serve as confidants and sounding boards for former service men and women who wind up in veterans court, a co-occurring court that caters to vets suffering from mental illness and substance abuse issues.

On Saturday, Bumgardner will attend his fourth mentor training program at the University of Montana law school.

"Just by the grace of God, I never saw combat," he said. "They almost killed me more than one time in training accidents, but most of the (vets) we see did see combat. So you know in the military, when you sign up, you essentially write the government a blank check for everything up to your life. So if anyone deserves a second chance, it's these guys."

Bumgardner has mentored four vets who have gone through veterans court. Three of "his vets" have graduated, while one is still in the program.  

"All four of them are totally different," he said. "One of mine was even my age – a Vietnam-era vet because they are now recognizing the words they didn't have for what they've gone through, we now have words and definitions for that, and they are going through treatment. Some of them feel like they are at the edge of a trip wire."

Bumgardner said he goes to court with his veteran every week, and is there for them to lean on when the program gets tough – which is often. The program is based on strict accountability, maintaining contact, and random drug and alcohol testing.

He explained it doesn't matter that he hasn't seen combat; because of the shared military experience, there's a connection between him and other veterans.

Standing Master Brenda Desmond, who presides over Missoula Veterans Court, said she needs more veterans to volunteer as mentors for the program – 16 more, to be exact.

Since its inception in 2011, 27 veterans have graduated from the program. The court would like a pool of 30 volunteers to draw from as the program progresses.

Why should Missoula's veterans volunteer? Because many veterans need their help and that military connection leads to a vital bond between the mentor and the mentee, Desmond said.

"The other reason vets should help them is we sent them over there," she said.

The majority of vets in the program are post 9-1-1 combat veterans, with a small number of Vietnam vets who are working through the court system. 

"I’ve also noticed ... by the time they get to our court, often they have been on a downward spiral for years," Desmond said. "It’s a difficult road back. Sometimes I am stunned. The good news is we now have an excellent treatment program for vets in Missoula."

***

Steve Hurd, an Iraq veteran and recovering addict, is one such downward-spiral-turned-success story.

After suffering from severe PTSD, Hurd developed a drug habit and eventually went on a crime spree that landed him in jail. He's still in veterans court, but his criminal case has been adjudicated.

He's found housing through Valor House, has gained custody of his three children, and is currently working at a veterinary clinic as a vet tech. 

Most recently, Hurd finally received a retroactive honorable discharge from the military, which allows him access to VA benefits. 

Hurd's mentors, who he identifies as "Larry and Larry," were a big part of helping him get back on track.

He said they were the people he leaned on through the roughest parts of the program. They helped him understand why the court was asking him to accomplish certain things.  

"(Mentors have) a better insight on how to help guys in our situation," Hurd said, "as opposed to some regular person who has never been in the military."

The fifth annual Missoula Veterans Court mentor training will be held Saturday, Nov. 7, from 8:15 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and Tuesday, Nov. 10, from 5:15 to 8:30 p.m., in Room 101 of the Alexander Blewett III School of Law.  

For more information or to register, call (406) 258-4728 or email tdouglas@mt.gov.

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