It's a criminal justice approach to help vets who are in trouble with the law because there's a link between their service and the crime, for example drinking to deal with PTSD. There's been a Vet Court in Travis County for about the last 5 years, dozens of vets have gone through the court and graduated, and it seems to be working. In this courtroom the accused are all veterans, and so is the judge Mike Denton.
"It's kind of a holistic approach to make sure we are taking care of not just the crime but all those things we promised our vets to help them get back and get on their feet."
Every month there are anywhere from 40 to 50 vets in the program, which is voluntary. If they get through and graduate, criminal records can be expunged or charges reduced. Army vet Bennett Ruetz was facing 4 felony drug charges. He was a meth addict and was no stranger to the regular criminal justice system.
"Probation was like they wanted to violate you on everything and send you back to the can. But with Veterans Court it seemed like they really wanted to help out where you had problems...they had solutions."
Vets in this court have to complete treatment plans and meet with counselors. They have to show a desire to change. And the court makes sure they receive all the military benefits due to them. Judge Denton says it's not an easy program to complete, but it works. Chris Jaramillo can attest to that. The marine combat engineer was looking at felony drunk driving. He says he drank to cope with the isolation, but not after vet court.
"It taught me how to get sober and how to deal with problems head on...sober without drinking it away. It was life changing, it has made a lifelong impact in me because I see the benefits of being sober with a clear mind...clear thinking."
Ruetz and Jaramillo are classic examples of vet court graduates. They drank and drugged to deal with civilian life after deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Vet court gave them a goal, coupled with support, guidance and the comradery of other vets in similar situations.
Ruetz says "You lose a piece of you overseas that's key to getting back into civilian life and vet court helped me bridge that gap of vet and civilian without the use of drugs even...which is amazing for me."
Vets go to the court every 2 weeks at first, then every other month as they move through the program, and when they finish there's a graduation. It's not a huge ceremony, but it has meaning because a mission has been accomplished and there's acknowledgment from your peers. And the vet court concept continues to expand. In Texas there are courts in Houston, Hays County, Williamson County, El Paso is looking at our version.