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Commissioners Do Right by Wounded Veterans

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The VTC was launched in January with a grant from the Governors’ Crime Commission that only covered overhead. It was estimated another $35,000 would be needed to pay for testing kits, mentor support, emergency housing, transportation, and client check-ins. Coordinator Dr. Eric Howard said he was comfortable asking for $10,000 from the county. The group is tapping other sources, including pursuing training to become eligible for federal grants, which could be as high as $2 million.

The court now has four enrollees, and will soon be treating seven. Twenty-five was stated as the number to be treated at full build-out, which would leave room for five emergency cases. Although there is pressure to expand the VTC into a regional service, Howard said he is going to “take things in phases.” Right now, the court is only accepting persons convicted of a nonviolent felony who suffer with substance abuse or other mental health issues. Persons charged with violent crimes or crimes against children are not eligible. DA Todd Williams explained the court does not work with misdemeanants because their sentences might only be for a couple days, whereas the DTC program is a 12-18 month commitment. Buncombe’s is the third VTC in the state and about the 100th nationwide.

Judge Marvin T. Pope, who everybody lauded for his compassion, oversees the court, which meets every other Friday. He works with a team that includes a mental health specialist, a probation officer, an outreach specialist, a public defender, an assistant district attorney, a criminologist, a specialist from the state’s program for rehabilitating substance abusers in the criminal justice system, and a mentor coordinator.

To answer the question, “Why veterans?” Howard shared some national stats: One in six Global War on Terrorism veterans has a substance abuse problem, one in three Vietnam veterans has PTSD, 22 percent of wounded vets from the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq suffer traumatic brain injury, and suicide rates are up to 20 American vets a day. There are 19,000 veterans in Buncombe County, 4300 of whom are patients at the Charles George VA Medical Center.

Veterans have traditionally been incarcerated for actions they’ve felt driven to perpetrate while suffering combat-induced PTSD, bipolar disorder, traumatic brain injury, suicidal thoughts, or substance abuse. To illustrate, Howard told of a recent visit to the jail where he heard the story of a man who recently had three episodes of intermittent explosive disorder. He had started using crystal methamphetamine because he didn’t want to go to sleep because he wanted to stop the nightmares. He had had a family with two kids, but that’s all gone now. Howard said the VTC rebuilds what this man has lost.

The program consists of five phases. Vets start out attending court every other week. They meet weekly with their mentor and Howard, and monthly with their probation officer. They’re given ankle monitors, and they’re subject to random drug screens and home visits. They must also get set up in approved housing. To advance to the next phase, the vet must remain drug-free. Violating terms of the agreement will result in sanctions, which could range from having to write an essay to taking what Howard called a quick dip, 2-3 days in jail.

In more advanced phases, participants won’t have to wear the ankle bracelet, but they will have to undergo treatment to address criminal thinking, establish a social support network, and engage in pro-social activity. In the final phase, they must have a job, be enrolled in a vocational training program, or be immersed in a serious form of “community engagement.”

Each client will have a screened and trained mentor to help him through the process. Mentors are like military buddies, and Howard hopes the process will forge friends for life. Mentors provide transportation to the VA and to court, and they help the vet navigate the court system. They’re a confidant who may only, and must, share with others intentions stated about inflicting damage on oneself, others, or physical property.

The VTC’s printed mission statement reads, “To promote public safety through accountability and responsibility. Assist and support veterans and their families through a coordinated effort among the court and community-based Veteran services, – thereby leaving no Veteran behind.” Slogans displayed in Howard’s PowerPoint presentation included, “Keeping Free Those That Kept us Free” and “The Warrior Ethos: I will NEVER leave a Fallen Comrade.”

Howard summarized, “At the end of the day, that’s what it’s about, is getting folks the services they deserve, getting them employed, getting them back into working and being a part of our community as they once were.”

Williams said his office was invested in the work, “to provide services to folks, to reinstate them, to restore them to lawful citizenship. . . . It’s what is just simply right to do in terms of what folks have given to our country, to our society. It’s just a component of justice. . . . It’s the patriotic thing to do.”

Following a vote of unanimous approval, Commissioner Brownie Newman added, “This is an important investment – a modest investment in the totality of what our community is doing to support veterans . . . . We owe it to these people who have done so much for our country.”

Since lighting buildings is the in-thing, Howard asked the commissioner if they could please light up the courthouse red, white, and blue for the week of Veterans Day. He also called attention to the county’s first ever Veterans Amnesty Day. Friday, November 13, from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., veterans with undisposed traffic or nonviolent misdemeanor cases can show up, without fear of arrest, and remit unpaid fines or reset court dates. Veterans must bring proof of discharge. For more information on Amnesty Day or VTC, call Howard at 259-6601 or Williams at 259-3410.

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