United They Stand
Mizzou alumni staff much of the Boone County Veterans Treatment Court.
For moms and dads, commencement makes the short list of life’s most cherished events. The ceremony — filled with clapping, Kleenex, hugs and handshakes — often fulfills their child’s lifelong educational journey.
But on May 12, 2012, Don Stevens sat inside Boone County jail as his daughter walked across the Hearnes Center stage to receive her University of Missouri diploma. Eleven days earlier, he had been drinking and was on his way to the Columbia Mall when he was arrested for driving under the influence. It was the U.S. Army veteran’s third offense, further evidence of the alcoholism that had taken hold when Stevens was a tank-radio technician in Germany during the ’80s.
It was also Stevens’ second paternal wake-up call in a year — a Father’s Day 2011 heart attack resulted in pacemaker surgery.
“My daughter is graduating from college, and where’s her dad? He’s in jail,” says Stevens, shaking his head. “That was the final hammer for me.”
On Sept. 29, 2014, Stevens celebrated his 55th birthday and his own less conventional graduation from the Boone County Veterans Treatment Court. “Vet court,” an alternative sentencing program staffed with several Mizzou alumni, aims to reduce recidivism rates for veterans in the criminal justice system. Instead of jail time, the court oversees participants’ treatment through the Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans’ Hospital in Columbia, pairs each veteran with a mentor who is also a veteran, and administers drug and alcohol testing. It’s a system of recovery that taps into the camaraderie, discipline and self-reliance from the veterans’ days in the military.
According to the VA’s Center for Health Care Evaluation in Palo Alto, California, more than half of justice-involved veterans have at least one mental health concern, including psychiatric disorders such as mood, substance use or anxiety disorders.
“People are coming into contact with the criminal justice system for reasons that can be treated,” says Kelli Canada, a veterans court researcher at the MU School of Social Work. “When some of these populations are put into prison, those reasons are still there when they leave. These special populations, people with mental illnesses or drug addiction, have a much higher rate of recidivism than the general population.”
For these reasons and others, vet courts are proliferating nationally. They follow the proven success of drug courts and mental health courts, entities that date back to the 1980s.
Sober since the day of his arrest, employed and set to retire, Stevens vows to represent well his military “unit” — brothers and sisters who are making it through vet court.
“Before I started this program, I didn’t like spilling my guts to people I had never seen before.” Stevens says. “I didn’t know there was a program to help me rebuild my life, and this has. I have climbed a long way.”
Brothers and Sisters in Arms
MU graduate Danielle Easter and her social work colleagues at the Truman VA are renowned for their multitasking. A typical week might include helping a veteran find an apartment, driving him or her to the food bank, providing services that help pay child support, or showing someone how to use Columbia’s new bus system. The local hospital serves 44 counties in Missouri and more than 35,000 patients annually.
Easter, MSW ’04, also helps veterans with a criminal record break the cycle.
As the veterans justice outreach coordinator, she works with the Boone County Alternative Sentencing Center, the administrative office for the drug, DWI, mental health and veterans treatment courts.
When Easter took the job in 2009, veterans courts were a relatively new national trend. She wanted mid-Missouri to be on the forefront.
“Vet court had been a dream of mine for a while,” Easter says of the program that celebrated its one-year anniversary in July 2014. “I started planting the idea at mental health court, then got the tracks going in all the other alternative sentencing programs.”
The Boone County Veterans Treatment Court works like this: Veterans who have pleaded guilty to a criminal charge in Boone or Callaway counties are referred from various sources — attorneys, jails or family members who have seen a flier on a courthouse wall. Certain cases are not eligible, such as veterans convicted of a sex offense or murder. All treatment is administered through the Truman VA, so participants must be eligible for VA benefits.
The court meets every Monday for about an hour at the Boone County Courthouse, where Judge Michael Bradley, BA ’74, JD ’78, reviews the participants’ weekly journal assignments and treatment responsibilities. If veterans have fallen short — missed or failed a drug test, dodged a therapy appointment or run afoul of the law — sanctions are levied, and they might not move forward through the program’s phases toward graduation. If the veteran has been successful, he or she draws from a U.S. Army helmet filled with vouchers for prizes, including bus tickets, VA travel mugs or coupons that cover the cost of the required random urine analyses.
Vet court is different in that all participants remain in attendance until everyone has taken a turn approaching the bench, where they stand at military parade rest. In other courts, individuals are free to leave once their case has been addressed.
In addition, Bradley asks at each session for a different vet to lead the group in the Pledge of Allegiance.
“We don’t instruct everyone to stand at parade rest; they pick that up on their own,” Bradley says. “If you fail in vet court, there’s an understanding that it reflects on all of us. I tell them if you can make it through basic training, you can make it through this.”
Easter and the VA staff also encourage the all-for-one commitment during group therapy sessions. It’s a winning formula in other addiction programs, and it’s especially effective among those with a military background.
“At some point, they were all in a military unit, and they were accepted,” Easter says. “It was their family. We’re trying to mimic that in our court. Obviously there is a hierarchy, but that’s the symbolism — unity. Rely on your brothers and sisters.”
A Shared Past
Brandy Clark is an effusively polite, sweet-spoken Missouri girl. Her congeniality made her a favorite with the staff and participants she served as the vet court’s mentor coordinator.
But friendliness wasn’t the only trait that endeared her to veterans.
As a U.S. Army veteran who served two tours in Iraq, Clark, BHS ’14, drove a 48-wheel Heavy Equipment Transport past roadside bombs to deliver tanks and gun trucks to every base in the country. She wasn’t pushing paper.
“A lot of the females [in Iraq] didn’t have roles like that,” says Clark, who was assigned to match volunteer veteran mentors with court participants. She left the position in July 2014 for a full-time job but still volunteers as a veteran mentor. “In working with the veterans, it helped that I hadn’t done something ‘girly,’ for lack of a better term. It put me at an approachable level.”
Mentorship is a critical aspect of the court’s success. Each participant is paired with a volunteer veteran with whom they share interests and meet weekly. The meetings are mandatory, and they can take place at any venue as long as its primary function is not serving alcohol.
The idea stems from the first veterans treatment court, established in 2008 in Buffalo, New York, where Judge Robert Russell noticed a dramatic behavior change in a drug court participant. The bailiff, a former Marine, had asked for the judge’s permission to speak privately with a typically despondent and distracted participant, who was also an ex-Marine. After the conversation, the participant returned to the courtroom alert, respectful and attentive.
There were about 100 veterans courts in the U.S. in 2012 when Veterans United Home Loans, a Columbia-based company that helps house American servicemen and women, contributed $100,000 to establish the Boone County Veterans Treatment Court.
The young program has produced nine graduates, who are doing well, Easter says. But most of the evidence is anecdotal. Researchers at the MU School of Social Work, led by assistant professor Kelli Canada, are gathering better data.
“In alternative sentencing courts, the legal professionals working within them — judges, probation officers, attorneys — are intended to be therapeutic,” says Canada, who conducts entrance and exit interviews with vet court participants. “That team-based approach helps participants understand there are services available within their community to address the reasons why they have been arrested.”
Using the tools he received through the Boone County Veterans Treatment Court, Don Stevens recommits daily to maintaining his sobriety as he faces retirement. He works with his brother-in-law installing household appliances for Sears, and he is taking steps to obtain a hardship license to drive to and from his job.
As an ex-soldier, Stevens’ motive for the commitment is survival. As a father, he dreams of someday walking his daughter down the aisle. As a 55-year-old man with lost time and hard miles on his odometer, he understands he must find the strength to endure.
In the meantime, he thinks the Pacific Northwest, where he once served a temporary duty assignment in Fort Lewis, Washington, might be a nice place to retire.
“I fell in love with that part of the country — trees so big you can drive through them,” says Stevens with a new appreciation for the verdant bounty of life’s storms. “People complain about how much it rains there. Well, that’s why your trees are 1,000 feet tall.”