EDITORIAL: Honor, aid vets with more treatment courts

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Manny Welch survived the Vietnam War.

But perhaps his biggest battles came when he returned home.

Like many veterans, he struggled upon his return to civilian life.

According to an account of his struggles on the Buffalo Veterans Mentor Group website, Welch got heavily into drugs and alcohol for years. His struggles cost him two families, four children, multiple jobs, jail time and, according to the website, his self-respect.

One day, foundering in a soup kitchen in Rochester, Welch took up an offer to turn his life around by participating in the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court. He was its first graduate back in 2008.

He followed the treatment program, followed the rules, and followed a path back to a happy and successful life that included a college degree, a new family, children and a good job.

Timothy Wynn came back from overseas tours as a Marine, his last as a participant in the initial invasion of Iraq.

His separation from the Marines didn’t go smoothly. He was arrested several times for fighting and other incidents, he struggled with substance abuse, he was separated from his daughter for the first four years of her life due to his addictions, and he spent time in jail after multiple arrests. Following a road-rage incident, Wynn found himself in a veterans treatment court in Pennsylvania, a program modeled after Buffalo’s program.

There he was exposed to behavioral health specialists who helped him cope with his addictions, his criminal behavior and his post-traumatic stress issues.

That helped him get his life on track — back with his girlfriend (now wife) and with that daughter from whom he’d been estranged for so long.

These are just two examples of how veterans treatment courts can help veterans overcome alcohol and drug addiction, mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, poverty, homelessness and problems with the legal system to turn their lives around.

Rather than condemn these veterans to a life in and out of jail, these courts allow them to get the treatment they need for their problems.

From that initial veterans program in Buffalo 13 years ago, New York’s veterans courts now number 35. But their services are not readily available to vets living in counties not served by their own local veterans court.

According to the New York Health Foundation, which issued a report in 2019 on the status of veterans courts in New York, about 22% of returning post-9/11 veterans have a “probable” mental health illness. The number of veterans being treated for mental illness and substance abuse has increased 38% since 2004.

Yet only about one-third of veterans among the state’s 800,000 former military personnel have access to a veterans treatment court, the foundation reported.

A bill that passed the state Assembly last week (A5719A/S1957A) would expand access to these courts by allowing prosecutors to transfer certain felony and misdemeanor cases pending against a veteran from one county’s criminal court to a veterans treatment court in an adjoining county. Cases in which the victim and suspect are from the same family could not be transferred, and transfers to veterans court would need input and consent from the district attorneys in each county.

This bill, which has local Assembly members Angelo Santabarbara and Phil Steck among its cosponsors, would greatly expand access to these veterans treatment courts to more vets, many of whom currently would not be eligible simply because of the county they live in.

In addition, the bill authorizes the chief administrator of the courts to establish veterans treatment courts to the level necessary to help veterans gain access to them.

To ease the burden on existing veterans courts, lawmakers need to ensure that new courts are adequately funded in the state budget and that existing courts have the financial resources they need to handle any additional caseload from the expansion of veteran access.

We owe our veterans so much, the least of which is a healthy, productive life after their service has ended. Expanding veterans treatment courts in New York through this legislation would be a big step forward.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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