The Missoula County Courthouse, usually home to somber hearings, trials and sentencings, hosted a rare happy occasion Monday.
The first Veterans Court in Montana saw another first – the first graduation from the program designed to help vets get back on track when they end up on the wrong side of the law.
Veterans Court “gave me a second chance,” said the graduate, identified only as Paul because Veterans Court is part of a confidential mental health and substance abuse treatment program. “It was kind of a wake-up call.”
Veterans Court, which launched in June, now has nine participants, said Standing Master Brenda Desmond, who heads the program. Monday, she organized a party for Paul, featuring juice, fruit, cupcakes and a bouquet of red, white and blue flowers.
She praised him as a good role model for others in the program. “You’ve been very, very serious about your participation, which is impressive. I’m so impressed with your work ethic,” she said.
When it came to looking for work, Paul didn’t just check out the help wanted ads or go to Job Services, she said. He printed up his resume and distributed it to businesses around town, persisting until he found a job.
Desmond has said that veterans often have problems readjusting to civilian life after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Their serious mental health challenges are directly related to their war experience,” she said last year.
Paul said he returned from five tours of duty as an Army Ranger in Afghanistan with some anger issues. Veterans Court helped him work through that, he said.
“I went through a pretty tough time the last year or so,” he told Desmond and the 20 friends and supporters who filled the courtroom. “I learned that a lot of what I was doing was wrong. ... It took a lot for me to realize why I was the way I was.”
Paul Harmon, veterans justice outreach and re-entry specialist for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Helena, was among those attending Monday’s ceremony, as was Deb Frandsen from U.S. Sen. Jon Tester’s office. Tester sits on the Veterans Affairs subcommittee.
“I appreciate all the help and consideration I’ve gotten,” Paul said. “It could have been a lot worse. I’m very grateful to have an opportunity to be able to have a place in Veterans Court.”
Missoulian reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, email@example.com, or via Twitter @CopsAndCourts.