Trouble Coming Home

A new court program helps veterans learn to live again.

LaDeitrich Jones is one of four veterans graduating from a court program next week. - YOUNG KWAK
Young Kwak
LaDeitrich Jones is one of four veterans graduating from a court program next week.

LaDeitrich Jones remembers the sweat, especially on his palms. He remembers the adrenaline, feeling his heart beat hard inside his chest, under his brown camo fatigues. He remembers not knowing if there was a child or an insurgent on the other side of the Iraqi door he was about to break through. He remembers noise and bullets and sand.

But he doesn’t remember trying to choke his girlfriend, Tosha, in his Spokane apartment a year later.

Jones, 30, looks the part of a Marine: tired eyes, weary smile, broad shoulders. His ears are studded with earrings and his voice is calm, as he talks about his three kids and his plans for the future.

“It’s not as bad once you start talking about it, once you start the healing process,” says Jones, who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and now attends regular counseling sessions and is close to finishing his associate degree at Spokane Community College.

Jones is one of four veterans who will graduate from an innovative court program in Spokane next week. The Spokane County Veterans Court strategy mirrors that of DUI or drug court: It addresses the problem with therapy, not incarceration; treatment instead of warehousing. The veteran court model started in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008 and has since spread across the country.

In Spokane’s court, about half of the 60 veterans have been charged with domestic violence and half are facing DUI charges, says Judge Vance Peterson, who started the court last September.

“Most of them recognize they have done something wrong. They recognize they have to be held accountable,” says Peterson, who was a green beret and member of the Army for 28 years. “But we’re not going to brutalize them in the process. They’ve been through enough brutality.”

Peterson's office is filled with military photos and memorabilia. He’s soft-spoken, with a stiff silver mustache. He leans back in his chair behind a desk covered in paperwork and two laptop computers. A sticker on the front of the desk says, “There is no excuse.”

Qualifying for his court is no easy process. First, a veteran can’t be facing serious felonies or sex crimes. Once they enter the program, they receive counseling and other resources aimed at helping them address their particular set of issues. They agree to regular parole stipulations, like avoiding alcohol if they’re facing a DUI, and have to attend at least six sessions of counseling.

The court’s required counseling sessions are part of the Veterans Forum, a nonprofit set up in conjunction with the court to offer mental and practical assistance. About a dozen groups from the area, such as Goodwill and Center for Justice, show up to offer classes, medical care, food and fuel vouchers.

In most cases, the veterans have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury. So far, only one veteran has failed to complete the program.

“We’re not going to force anybody into this program. That is not successful in therapy,” Peterson says. “But once they opt in, we hold their nose to the grindstone.”

Next Thursday, the first set of graduating veterans will come before the court and read aloud letters they’ve written about what the system did for them. Then Peterson will formally dismiss the charges against them and they will attend one last group forum, where some will become mentors for future veterans.

This spring, the U.S. Department of Defense reported that about 137,000 soldiers are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. About 15 percent of them will return home with PTSD or TBI related to their combat experience, according to The New England Journal of Medicine.

Paul Nicolai, director of the behavior health program at the Spokane Veterans Affairs Medical Center, says 3,677 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have sought services at the hospital since 2002, just before the invasion of Iraq. Up to a third of them have shown symptoms of PTSD, he says. While the hospital doesn’t track how many of those veterans have ended up in some kind of trouble with the law, Nicolai says it’s not uncommon.

“You never know who it’s going to be,” he says. “This is a group that is more vulnerable than the general population.”

Veterans Court Probation Officer Tim Sigler says therapeutic courts work because their principles are fundamentally different from those of traditional courts. They still serve to protect the public, but in a way that he says is more just.

“Our values are looking more toward social justice and the dignity of a person, acknowledging more about a person than just what crime they committed,” Sigler says.

Michael Carroll had his jaw wired shut for eight weeks after he returned home from the Army in 2004. He went through speech therapy and had electro-shock therapy for back pain, the results of combat in Iraq. Then he was diagnosed with PTSD and TBI. He struggled with anger, homelessness, thoughts of suicide and feeling alone without the military structure that had become so familiar.

Now he mentors three veterans going through the veterans court, including Jones.

“I went through my own trials and have my burdens,” he says. “Whenever I’m helping out a veteran, I am just letting them know there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

They’re required to make contact at least once a week — via a text, call, email or meeting — but it’s often more than that. Carroll recently helped one veteran and his wife find affordable housing and threw them a baby shower. He sometimes talks to another one for two hours or longer a few times a week.

Mentorship is a crucial part of the court program, Judge Peterson says. While nearly everyone who organizes the court is a veteran, their interaction with participants has its limits. With one-on-one interaction, veterans can get advice on readjusting to society and get practical help, like a ride to a job interview.

This type of support was lacking when veterans returned from the Vietnam War, but Dr. Anna Medina says she and others are trying to change that for this generation’s service members.

Medina, who teaches a trauma seminar at Gonzaga University and has presented at two of the veterans forums, hopes to use the veterans’ experiences to study the homecoming process and help non-veterans know how to be of some help.

In talking with students, Medina says there’s a misconception that “when you come back you either have PTSD or you’re fine,” which makes it hard for the veteran and civilian worlds to communicate about veterans’ issues.

“I think there are people who are very appreciative of what these people have been through and we just don’t know how to be of service to them,” she says.

Jim Duncan, 31, knows what it’s like to have people assume he’s “fine” because he didn’t see combat during his time in the Marines. He doesn’t have a PTSD diagnosis. He doesn’t have a brain injury. But that didn’t mean his readjustment was easy, he says.

Duncan’s voice is deep — a mismatch with his wiry frame and round glasses. He worked as a mapmaker on a Navy ship throughout Asian waters and, when he got back in 2009, things started to fall apart. His wife left him and he felt aimless without military structure. He moved back to Spokane from North Carolina, moved in with his parents and started attending Spokane Falls Community College.

Then he got in an argument last Halloween night, broke someone’s cell phone and went to jail overnight for destruction of property. He doesn’t want to talk about the details, but he says it’s an experience that changed everything. Soon after his arrest, Duncan entered the veterans court and learned to manage his anger.

“It’s not easy. There were times I would feel angry, but I would just think about all the things I’d been through and all the counseling I had done and all the people who had tried to help me,” he says. “And it just wasn’t worth it to let myself get back in trouble.”

Next week, he’ll graduate with Jones. Then he plans to become a mentor for other veterans in the program.

The success of the program for veterans like Jones and Duncan has been particularly impressive, Judge Peterson says, because its budget remains nearly nonexistent. Peterson, the prosecuting attorneys, public defenders and probation officers all volunteer their time, taking on veterans court cases on top of their regular workload.

The state veterans department is temporarily funding half of a justice officer position to help the court, but Peterson is looking to federal grants to keep the program going and to expand it to as many as 400 participants.

“These young ladies and men have seen more combat minutes than their dads did in Vietnam or their granddads did in World War II. We’re talking three, four, five, six tours. You couldn’t be human and go through that and not be affected,” he says. “We want to bring them back into the culture they defended.”

Jones knows his struggles aren’t over. He still feels anger. He still has nightmares. When that happens he thinks about his daughter, Mae’lyiah, who was born just after he returned from Iraq in 2009.

And, especially these days, as he prepares his reflective letter to read at graduation, he’s thinking about the veterans court and where he might be without it.

“Jumping off a bridge or in jail,” he says. “I’d have nothing to live for.”

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About The Author

Heidi Groover

Heidi Groover is a staff writer at the Inlander, where she covers city government and drug policy. On the job, she's spent time with prostitutes, "street kids," marriage equality advocates and the family of a 16-year-old organ donor...