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Veterans Court Hoping to Aid More Troubled Veterans in West Virginia

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By Paige Madden

The West Virginia Department of Veterans Affairs reports that over 170,000 veterans live in West Virginia. However, the First Judicial Circuit of West Virginia, covering Ohio, Hancock and Brooke Counties, is currently the only circuit in West Virginia with a Veterans Treatment Court.

According to justiceforvets.org, "The Veterans Treatment Court model requires regular court appearances, as well as mandatory attendance at treatment sessions and frequent and random testing for substance abuse."

Veterans Treatment Court, like drug courts and mental health courts, is used as an alternative to incarceration.

Rick Harmon is the Veterans Court supervisor of the First Judicial Circuit in West Virginia. "The idea is that a lot of veterans have run into legal trouble after serving, and a lot of it has to do with substance abuse," said Harmon. "Instead of someone being in jail without treatment, we want to have a system outside of jail with treatment."

Judge Martin Gaughan presides over the Veterans Treatment Court every other week. Gaughan claims the program is a sort of mix of mental health court and drug court. "In veterans court, what we really look at is trauma. That seems to be the basis of a lot of their problems," said Gaughan.

The judge also says that a specialized court can benefit veterans more than just drug court or mental health court. "If we solve the drug problem, they're still going to have the mental problem."

According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, about 20-percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans come home with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and more than 20-percent of veterans diagnosed with PTSD also suffer from Substance Abuse Disorder. Harmon says PTSD can be very debilitating and sometimes causes young veterans to get into trouble. "They are doing very responsible and great things, and all of a sudden, because of the trauma, they aren't able to do that now."

"It's a sort of loss of emotional control, and they need treatment."

Licensed Professional and Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor Sandra Street has treated several veterans suffering from both PTSD and Substance Abuse Disorder. Street says veterans turn to drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with the trauma. "Most veterans find it hard to talk about what they have seen and been a part of and make an effort to put it out of their mind. The use of mind-altering substances appears to provide a means to do so."

Street also says this substance abuse can lead to even more emotional damage. "Individuals experience guilt and shame, helplessness and hopelessness as a result of the substance abuse. There may be issues around anger, self-esteem, spiritual questioning, trust, as well as physical effects from the use," said Street.

The goal of the Veterans Treatment Court program is to tackle both the mental/emotional trauma and substance abuse issues a veteran may be dealing with. The treatment court program lasts for a year and consists of intense supervision and treatment. While the Veterans Court is operated through the circuit court system, the program is heavily affiliated with the Veterans Association.

"We work very closely with the Veterans Association," said Judge Gaughan. "They'll get in touch with us, or we get in touch with them and say ‘We've got a guy in jail, and if we put him in our program we can keep him out of jail.'"

Justiceforvets.org says over 7,000 veterans have been admitted to Veterans Treatment Court, and over two-thirds have successfully completed the program nationwide.

Since the First Judicial Circuit began the veterans treatment court program in 2012, the court has seen only two graduates. There are three veterans enrolled in the program right now.

While the First Judicial Circuit only serves Hancock, Brooke and Ohio counties, Harmon hopes more veterans will take advantage of the treatment program. "I don't have that many, and I'd like to have more," said Harmon.

"There might be more out there, and I seem to be doing well with the veterans."

Sandra Street says that with therapy, substance abuse can be conquered. She adds that a
program such as the Veterans Treatment Court can create a bond between veterans that
may aid in the recovery process.

"Unlike most chronic diseases, addiction treatment has a very high success rate," said
Street. "Of particular help is the interaction with other veterans who are undergoing the same
types of treatment. There is the ‘bond' and the unspoken notion that no one understands
what a soldier is going through like another soldier."

Judge Gaughan is optimistic about the future of Veterans Treatment Court programs in West Virginia and sees expansion in the future. "[The federal government] is in the process of starting more mental health courts. The federal government gets a lot of criticism, but they really are interested in helping vets."

Gaughan believes that with the development of more mental health courts in West Virginia, other circuits will create veterans treatment courts modeled after the First Circuit's program.

For more information on Veterans Treatment Courts, visit justiceforvets.org.