Perhaps no one represents the promise and potential pitfalls of veteran’s court like Tyler O’Neil, a Coast Guard veteran who in April was the first to graduate from the program.
The special track in the 86th District Court, set up to deal with veterans facing charges, was launched about a year ago and it has seen its share of ups and downs, and at first O’Neil seemed like one of the ups, said District Court Judge Michael Haley.
O’Neil graduated from the program, but days later he was in trouble again.
“You get to like these people, and that’s not always a good thing, because then they can scam you and they can manipulate you and they can lie really well to you,” said Haley, who founded the special veteran’s court.
O’Neil’s graduation ceremony in April was an emotional and moving pause in a courtroom more accustomed to drunk drivers being sent to jail, probation violation sentences and felony preliminary examinations.
O’Neil graduated and was sent on his way and Haley implored O’Neil to stay in touch.
O’Neil would stay in touch with the court system, but not in the way Haley hoped.
A couple of days later, he was picked up for drunk driving in Grand Traverse County. He bonded out of jail and before he could wind up before Haley again he checked in to a Veterans Affairs hospital in Battle Creek.
Although O’Neil was not a combat veteran, he suffers from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from working in drug interdiction with the Coast Guard, Haley said.
When he checked out of there on April 26 and did not return up north to face the charge, Haley signed a bench warrant for his arrest and forfeited his bond.
O’Neil originally came to veteran’s court after he was charged with unlawful use of a motor vehicle for taking a van at the Turtle Creek Casino on New Year’s Day, 2011.
“We were so excited about getting this program started, and we were excited he was doing such a good job, but as it turns out, he wasn’t doing so good,” Haley said.
‘WAKE UP CALL’
Haley began veterans court because he recognized, like other judges across the country, that veterans posed unique challenges to the criminal justice system.
For the sake of justice and to benefit society, some believe courts should look for ways to help veterans who run into trouble with the law, particularly those who suffer from combat stress, instead of throwing them in jail.
Judge Robert T. Russell Jr. of Buffalo City Court founded the nation’s first special court for veterans in 2008. The Los Angeles Times estimated in March there are around 90 such courts around the country. The first veterans court in Michigan was started by Judge David Jordan in East Lansing in 2010.
The program uses Veterans Administration services administered through the court and it’s loosely based on sobriety court. Defendants meet in court around every three weeks for a status update with the judge and counselors. They are put into intensive probation and paired with mentors who are veterans of the military themselves.
“The fundamental theme in all of these so-called ‘problem-solving’ courts is accountability,” Haley said. “I didn’t understand this when I started this, I thought it was mostly about compliance.”
Despite setbacks, Haley is optimistic and plans to keep working at it.
“I don’t have any experience with PTSD or traumatic brain injury. It took me years to understand addiction to drugs and alcohol and all of that,” said Haley, who around a decade ago was among the first judges in the state to start a sobriety court.
Haley hopes veteran’s court can someday be as successful as sobriety court.
“We’ve got nowhere to go but improve.
This was just a wake-up call for me to understand that you can’t just jump into this program and expect it’s going to be the same as drug court,” he said. “I think it is an excellent program. My program isn’t excellent, but the concept is excellent.”
Haley said he remains committed to making it work because he believes veterans deserve a break in the criminal justice system.
“If anybody deserves special treatment in our court system, it’s these guys,” Haley said.
A DEATH UNNOTICED
Of the handful of people that have been through veteran’s court in TC, three others have not completed the program.
Another veteran almost completed the program when he was found on the TART trail with his wrists slashed, Haley said.
That man survived, but he was sent to the VA hospital in Battle Creek for specialized treatment.
Another participant, an older defendant, died of a heart attack.
The most tragic and heartbreaking case is that of a soldier who came back from Iraq in such bad shape he could not manage to adjust to life after the war, wound up in veteran’s court and could not manage.
The soldier, whose family requested he remain unnamed, was a wounded combat veteran who served in the Army. He came to veteran’s court after a drunk driving arrest in September, 2011.
He probably did not belong in the program at all, however, Haley said.
That’s because the program is built upon the concept that participants should achieve and maintain sobriety, and the soldier’s war wounds were so severe that he needed to remain on opiates.
Haley said the soldier was injured when he was on an upper floor of a building in Iraq that blew up and he suffered severe spinal injuries and other wounds.
“He comes back a mess, he’s got part of his ear gone, he’s on three different opiates,” Haley said. “We tried to work with him for a couple of months and it just became clear, no, he just couldn’t do it.”
He was transferred to Battle Creek for treatment and he died of a drug overdose earlier this year while out on a weekend pass, Haley said. Haley said the drug overdose appeared to have been unintentional.
“How he got a weekend pass from the VA when he’s down there for opiate addiction, I don’t know,” Haley said.
Haley attended the soldier’s funeral. He said he thought the death should have been treated like any other war combat death -- the soldier was a war hero just like any other who died of combat wounds, he just happened to have been back in the United States when he took his last breath.
CALL IT ‘COMBAT STRESS’
Larry Lelito, a Vietnam vet who has volunteered with the court for six months and who for years has worked with combat veterans attempting to readjust to civilian life, is optimistic the court will do good work.
“I think it’s got a lot of potential and I think it’s something that’s needed and I think it’s going to be a good thing,” he said. “To me, the way I look at it, it’s just a way of serving my country.”
Lelito, a Vietnam veteran, said he understands PTSD, unlike most people.
“I got involved with post traumatic stress issues before people even knew what post traumatic stress was,” said Lelito, a Marine Corps veteran. “It was called battle fatigue, shell shock, combat stress, all kinds of different things.”
He said he sought help for personal problems after Vietnam and found nowhere to turn.
In the 1980s he found a psychologist who specialized in PTSD and he was one of five in the TC area who were trained to help other veterans struggling with issues like anger and substance abuse brought on by combat stress issues.
In fact, Lelito believes today it would be more accurate and useful to use the term “combat stress” instead of PTSD, because PTSD can describe a stress disorder from any kind of trauma, and Lelito believes stress from combat should be considered its own category.
In addition to volunteering as a mentor for veteran’s court, Lelito holds sessions each month with therapy groups for combat veterans.
“The easiest way to deal with stress is with peers, with people who have been through similar circumstances,” he said.
In those therapy groups, Lelito said the object is to tackle issues before they lead to behavior that could cause someone to be arrested and have to enroll in veteran’s court.
“It’s kind of our job to try to catch them before they get to that point,” Lelito said.
Lelito said the help available to those who do wind up in veteran’s court is impressive and, in particular, he praises the help available from the VA, something he said was not available when he came back from Vietnam.
“The VA, I feel right now, is doing a fantastic job of trying to help people with these issues,” he said. “When you get hooked up with the VA here, they take you in and they put you through every test. Whatever your ailment is, it’s going to be addressed.”
‘THEN SOMETHING HAPPENED’
Dave Young, another veteran volunteer, got involved with the courts four years ago when he got arrested for drunk driving.
He said he entered Haley’s sobriety court because he was looking for a way to get out of spending a lengthy time in jail.
He said he understands why some vets are reluctant to enter a program like veteran’s court. Part of it is being unable to accept that the criminal justice system might offer something other than punishment.
“If you would have told me that before, that I’m going to go before a judge and he’s going to help me, I would have told you you can kiss my ass,” Young said.
Over time, after going through and successfully completing sobriety court and maintaining sobriety and then volunteering with veteran’s court, Young has come a long way from the day when he wanted to stay sober merely to stay out of jail.
“I just didn’t want to go to jail, to begin with, and then something happened,” he said.
And that, Young said, is what veterans court aims to do. If it works, it will be something that could get people to want to get the help so they can help themselves.
“For a soldier, for a veteran, one of the hardest flipping things is to ask for help,” Young said.