By Judge Greg Galler
He sat alone considering the distorted image that reflected back at him from the chrome-plated revolver in his hand. His life seemed distorted, too. It made no sense. He couldn’t see a way out. It had once been so different — full of hope, dreams and promise.
But that was long ago, before he had been sent to fight for his country. He had seen and experienced things that the human mind is not well-equipped to comprehend. Scenes and nightmares now raced through his mind, day and night. He was no longer in control of his thoughts, mood or life. At first the alcohol and drugs masqueraded as friends helped him to cope. Now they have further trapped him in a vicious downward spiral: unemployed, lashing out at family and in trouble with the law. Is there no way out but the most tragic of ends?
There is hope and help. For some, it is Washington County’s new Veteran’s Program, an effort initiated by the Washington County Attorney’s Office with enthusiastic support from the Veteran’s Administration, Washington County District Court, the probation department, and social and mental health workers. The program has an ambitious dual purpose of protecting public safety and reclaiming the hearts, minds and lives of our combat veterans.
The program begins with careful screening to determine eligibility. Input is received from prosecutors, defense attorneys, victims, probation officers, mental health workers and the VA. There are no free passes. Veterans need to accept responsibility and commit to a rigorous plan of recovery that typically includes court appearances, therapy, treatment, and random drug and alcohol testing. Those who successfully finish will receive reduced or dropped criminal charges. Those who do not will be subject to the punishment they would have received without the program.
Those who enter the program face a daunting task, but they won’t face it alone. In addition to the help from the VA and social service agencies, veterans will also be paired with a volunteer combat veteran as a mentor. This trained mentor will help to ease the transition back to mainstream life in a way that only someone else who has been through it themselves can do.
How much will all of this cost? Almost nothing. Much of the program involves putting veterans in touch with already available VA services. Almost everyone else is a volunteer. The Washington County attorney will screen and monitor with existing staff. The same is true for public defenders and the probation department. Both Judge Richard Ilkka and I are adding the cases to our already existing calendars.
Will all of this work? Results in other jurisdictions show great promise. The country’s first veteran’s court (in New York) reports a 90 percent graduation rate with zero re-offenders. These aren’t just impressive numbers on paper. These are real lives re-claimed and restored. It also repays, in some small way, those veterans who risked and sacrificed so much to guarantee and protect the society that we all enjoy today.
— Judge Galler is chambered in Washington County. This article was submitted by Wright County Judge Steve Halsey.