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Montana Veterans Court designed to help service members get back on track

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Brenda Desmond is big on duty.

The standing master for Missoula County's district courts thinks people have a duty to follow the law. But when they don't, the rest of us have a duty to help offenders get back on track, especially when the offenders in question are veterans.

"I feel an obligation," she said last week. "We send these young people off to war and part of the deal is that when they come back, we do for them what they need."

To that end, Desmond heads Montana's first Veterans Court, a Drug Court offshoot that's designed to help veterans who run afoul of the law get back on track with assistance tailored to their needs, particularly when it comes to substance abuse and mental health.

"Their serious mental health challenges are directly related to their war experience," Desmond said. "Their crimes are quite typical of that period of time when people return (from war) and have a hard time readjusting and often use substances, especially alcohol, to address their symptoms."

That's what Nathan Harris did.

"Before I came to Missoula, I never even had a speeding ticket," said Harris, 28, who grew up in Butte and Great Falls and moved here after a stint in the Navy. "I came to Missoula and had three in my first two years."

Harris joined the Navy in 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks and served in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, among others.

"I came back with some issues," he said. "I did some pretty heavy drinking and self-medicating. It went from self-numbing to something I couldn't control."

He signed up for a nine-week treatment program in Sheridan, Wyo., but got arrested before he even started. He was allowed to complete the treatment program, but knew within a month of returning to Missoula that he was in trouble. "I got sucked back into my old ways."

Veterans Court aims to boost him out.

"Veterans are kind of a separate entity when it comes to what our issues are," Harris said. "We have a boot camp when we go in, but we don't have a boot camp when we go out, to unlearn things and delve back into society."

Yet in his next breath Harris insisted that veterans don't deserve any sort of special break. "You won't hear a vet say, ‘I deserve this.' If it comes down to needing or wanting to help a veteran, you pretty much have to talk them into it."

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"I guess the first thing I look at," said Paul Harmon, veterans justice outreach and re-entry specialist for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Helena, "is why shouldn't we have a Veterans Court? These veterans have gone out and served their country. ... We've asked them to do horrific things and see horrific things."

Missoula's Veterans Court is among about 100 around the country, and so far the only one in Montana, although Yellowstone County is expected to start its own such program soon.

The concept began in 2008 with Judge Robert Russell in Buffalo, N.Y., whose program boasts a zero recidivism rate among its 80 participants so far, Harmon said.

Seven veterans are enrolled in Missoula County's Veterans Court, which launched in June. Their offenses include driving under the influence, assault and disorderly conduct, Desmond said. Anyone, including attorneys and family members, can refer a veteran to the court. Participants are assessed for their willingness, and sign a contract involving a treatment plan that typically includes drug testing, counseling and daily phone check-ins for the first several weeks.

"If you have that kind of contact with people, they know when (Veterans Court participants) are starting not to follow their plan," Desmond said. "We can get them back on track before it becomes harder and harder to reorient."

Each Monday, Harris and other Veterans Court participants file into Desmond's courtroom and report on the week's progress.

"You hear a lot of complaining in civilian court, but not so much in veterans court. We're pretty grateful for the opportunity not to be in jail," Harris said.

If a prosecutor agrees, successful participation in Veterans Court can lead to reduced sentences or, in some cases, deferred sentences in which an offender's record is wiped clean if he or she stays out of trouble, Desmond said.

A recent $200,000 grant to Missoula County's Drug Court will fund, among other things, a half-time case manager/licensed addiction counselor for Veterans Court participants. The program also seeks volunteer mentors, who must be veterans themselves. Desmond aims for two mentors for every Veterans Court participant, to allow for differences in age and experience.

"A Vietnam veteran who struggled upon return but who now has been many years back on track - they have a lot to offer these young veterans, even though their wars were very different," Desmond said. Meanwhile, younger mentors might be from the same branch of the service, or have done the same sort of work.

Harris hopes to be a mentor some day. For now, he wants a mentor of his own.

"Eventually I'd like to talk to some veteran down the line who doesn't have issues," he said. "See what the hell he's doing right. Someone who understands where you've been, what you've done. ... One thing the military instills in you is camaraderie. When you need help, you know veterans will be there for you."

Reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, gwen.florio @missoulian.com or CopsAndCourts.com.

 

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