HANCEVILLE, Ala. — After hearing the hour-long 911 call involving a young man who had previously appeared in her courtroom on DUI charges and returned this time in a domestic violence case, Baldwin County Judge Michelle Thomason vowed to do something to help others in his situation. The young man was a veteran who had served his country and in doing so was left with unseen scars that altered his life in he was ill equipped to deal with.
“But you don’t understand what I’ve been through,” said Judge Thomason, repeating what the young man told the deputy talking to the man during the situation. This man had been a sniper and recounted actions he had to take to take to protect the lives of the soldiers with whom he served. Stepping back into civilian life after those experiences was extremely difficult and led to the behavior that found him in front of Judge Thomason.
With no choice in that particular case but to follow the letter of the law, Judge Thomason said she found the man guilty of the charges against him, but placed him on parole and encouraged him to seek help, adding she would find out what she could do to help him and others in his situation.
That led to the implementation of the Baldwin County Veterans Treatment Court. Thomason said found two similar programs in Shelby and St. Claire counties and a program in New York where she attended a conference to learn about their system.
Judge Thomason recounted this story Thursday, Jan. 31, to dozens of Wallace State Community College students, faculty and staff, explaining how that young man was the catalyst for a program that has now helped more than 200 veterans in Baldwin County since February 2014.
Participants enter the program voluntarily, committing to at least one year during which they agree to treatments prescribed by an “non-adversarial” team comprised of counselors, therapist, prosecuting and defense attorneys and law enforcement officials.
“Everybody is working toward one goal, and that is to benefit the participant in our program,” Judge Thomason said.
Many of the participants in the program are facing charges of domestic violence, DUI, or drug charges and whose situation can be traced back to issues resulting from their service, such as PTSD, physical injuries and mental health issues.
“We evaluate these veterans and if we see they have an issue connected to their service, that is connected to their crime, we will bring them into this program,” Judge Thomason said. After successfully completing the program, their charges are dismissed.
“We’ve had great success,” Judge Thomason said, adding nationwide that such courts have a 92 to 93 percent success rate. Each participant is paired with a veteran who volunteers to serve as a mentor, a factor to which Thomason attributes to the success of the program.
“This is someone who knows what that participant has been through, and most of all they are trained do one thing, and that is to let that veteran know that I’ve got your back,” Thomason said. “I’m going to be here every step of the way to get you through this whole ordeal.”
Efforts are underway to establish a Veterans Treatment Court in Cullman County and Thomason encouraged the audience to contact their local lawmakers in support of the program. She also encouraged them to reach out to their state and national legislators to do the same throughout the state and nation and to support veterans as they transition from active service. “They need to find a way to do better in helping our veterans reintegrate into civilian life,” Judge Thomason said.
Completing the story she started about the young man, Thomason said the next time she saw him was several months later in divorce court. She asked him how he was doing and at this point he was homeless and unable to work and still struggling with undiagnosed PTSD.
A man in the back row of the courtroom then raised his hand and asked to approach the bench. That man was a counselor specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder waiting on another case to be called. He volunteered to provide his services to the young man.
“I called the young man up and introduced them and said ‘What do you think?’ and he said, ‘I think he would be an angel sent from heaven if he’s offering to help me,’” she recounted.
A few months later the man and his ex-wife were back in court where he was limited to supervised visitation with his children. “I thought it was just hopeless; I hoped not, I prayed not,” she said.
Several years later, after she’d started the Veterans Treatment Court, that man and his ex-wife were back in her court. This time it was to reinstate all of his parental rights. The counseling he’d received was a struggle at first, he told her, but after a while with the support he was able to turn his life around and now had a full-time job with insurance.
She then told him about the Veterans Treatment Court and how his case was catalyst for its beginning. “Because of you, I’ve had my hand on over 200 veterans who needed help like you and was able to offer that help to them,” she told him.
“That young man had to do it the hard way, but he did it,” Judge Thomason said. The goal of Veterans Court, she added, is to make it a little easier. “At least as easy as we can make it for these veterans to get the help they need, but more than anything else, the help they deserve. To give them the tools to put them back in a place of honor in their community that they deserve to be in.”