Mentors Make a Difference in New Veterans Treatment Court
Jasper County might soon have its first graduate of Veterans Court. The new treatment court began in August.
It’s alternative sentencing for those who’ve served our country giving veterans second chances.
There are seven hundred thousand veterans in the criminal justice system. The Jasper County jail is just beginning to track how many sit in its cells. How do they get there? Of the more than 2.7 million veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, half are dealing with mental health conditions. One in five suffers with posttraumatic stress disorder.
And one in six will struggle with addiction like Justin Cozart. Jasper County’s first participant in Veteran’s court.
Cozart said, “I served in operation Iraqi Freedom November 2005 to November of 2006. ” I’d already battled briefly with addiction. Then once when I came home I fell pretty deeply into it. I came back from Iraq with a whole lot of unhealthy pride and ego and that was just fuel for the fire.”
He then turned to meth and criminal activity.
Cozart explained, “I started cashing bad checks. That ‘ s when I caught my first felony. And I ‘ ve been in and out of prison since then. I didn ‘ t really think I needed to answer to anybody.”
Now he’s answering to Judge John Nicholas in Veterans court. Justin was the first in the program.
Judge Nicholas said, “These are people that have pled guilty so they’ve committed a crime. But we looked beyond that at their past service. So these are individuals who’ve served our country, been willing to take a bullet and die for you and I so we could have court here and have a viable society. And we’ve then given them an opportunity to complete a program that will turn their lives around.”
The eighteen month program requires court visits twice a month.
Jasper County Prosecutor Theresa Kinney explained, “It ‘ s a risk. That’s why the prosecution is an important part of the program because they have that hanging over their head, that if they’re not successful, they do come back and face criminal consequences for their conduct.”
The program requires participants have a job or go to school full time. They also take part in regular check ins and drug screenings.
Those are things that Justin says help him be successful.”
“There’s a high level of accountability. I have to make structured meetings twice a week. I have to report to my probation officer and with that high level of accountability it ‘ s harder for me to have a relapse,” Justin explained.
Like other treatment courts, they take a team approach. Besides the judge and prosecutor, Justin gets feedback and instructions from probation and parole, and veterans affairs representatives.
With more support from court administrators and Ozark Center New Directions therapists.
Therapist Carla Wolf said, “I think there’s a high co-occurrence of mental health issues and substance abuse issues. So having a therapist on the team helps look at some of that stuff so that they don ‘ t get triggered again for substance abuse. Or when they do they have adaptive coping skills they can utilize!”
Marcy Van de Berg, who is the link between the veteran, the VA, and the criminal justice system says the majority of veterans in the criminal justice system haven ‘ t contacted veterans affairs or know their benefits.
Van de Berg said, “They want to get home and get to their families and get on with their life and forget that I have these other challenges that might be lying there waiting.”
Cozart added, ” It ‘ s given me an opportunity to confront my problems with addiction rather than just sending me back to prison. It ‘ s a second opportunity at life.”
Jasper county has other treatment courts. Drug court, mental health court and DWI court. But veterans court has a unique approach that includes veteran mentors who are helping make it work.
Cozart gave Judge John Nicholas a required essay about how he can prevent a relapse into drug addiction. But he ‘ s not alone. Looking over his shoulder is his mentor Wynne Krell, a retired coast guard reserve officer. Mentors bring comradery and support once found in the military.
Court Administrator Matt Ouren said, “They lose that unity that they had when they were in the military and they lose that structure and that companionship. So, pairing them up with a mentor is incredible because it gives them that accountability tool but it also puts somebody in their life that ‘ s been through it.”
Krell gets Cozart to court and back to work. But a big key is getting veterans to talk, and to ask for help when they face setbacks or temptations.
Krell explained, “Military, has been raised that ‘ s what we don ‘ t do. We suck it up and you just move on with it. You don ‘ t admit you’ve got a problem.”
Cozart agreed, “That is one of my biggest problems. I wasn ‘ t going to ask for help. My pride and ego wouldn ‘ t allow it. You have to humble yourself and reach out.”
That ‘ s something veterans are more likely to do with other veterans.
“When you’ve served in combat or when you’ve gone through the tough training we go through together, that bond goes without being said andyou’re brothers.” That ‘ s Amy Donaldson with Compass Quest and Heartland K9s and she is the newly appointed mentor coordinator.
A veteran herself she knows there are some tough adjustments coming home. She explained, “I was trained to look at everyone like they were the enemy. Regular civilians to me still look like the enemy. And, um, it ‘ s just something engrained in my mind. And he (service dog) helped me get over that fear a lot.” So besides pairing those in Veterans Court with humans, some will be paired with canines too.
And Justin will be encouraged to support other veterans court participants as the group will hold reunions.
Ouren said, “A lot of times we find that they hold each other accountable which is another great tool, um, that we utilize and see some success with.”
KOAM-TV followed Justin to court twice, where he got praise from probation and parole and veterans affairs for how he handled a setback.
Cozart explained, “I was in a sober living arrangement and I broke one of their rules by fraternizing with women. And so I got kicked out of the program. I reached out to my supports and they embraced me, and I ‘ m now in a safe environment. ”
Mentor Krell added, “A few bumps along the way and we’ve been able to say, ‘ Were there other possible ways of going about that? Is there a better way to handle that? ‘ “
Justin is physically making a change too. Recently covering a tattoo that was a reminder of his past.
Judge Nicholas gave him dog tags as a marker of his success in the court. He said, “We expect and hope you keep doing the right thing. You’ve been doing the right thing so far. So I ‘ m gonna present you with this tag.”
Justin now enters phase three of the four phase program meaning he will only come to court once a month instead of twice. He is on his way to becoming the first graduate of the Jasper county veterans court.
Krell said, ” I ‘ m really encouraged. It ‘ s very satisfying to be a small, small, small piece in a system to get people back working in the society, functioning.”
Justin said, “I ‘ m very, very grateful for this opportunity. Like, I said before, I ‘ ve been in and out of prison. And this is the longest amount of sobriety I ‘ ve had in the last eighteen years. It’s all thanks to this program.”
More veteran mentors are needed. To apply as a volunteer you can contact Amy Donaldson with Compass Quest at 417-438-9397 or Matt Ouren, the veterans court administrator at 417-438-4245.
Jasper county’s new Veterans treatment court is now one of twelve in the state of Missouri. Last year statewide sixty veterans graduated from the other eleven. That ‘ s a seventy-three percent success rate.