Orange County court gives combat veterans a second chance

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Many veterans face mental health issues after returning home from combat. Most can cope, but some don’t. Three years ago, Orange County opened a special court to handle cases of veterans who get caught up in the criminal justice system. It's one of nine of its kind in the state.

Cheers, laughs and smiles abound inside this Santa Ana courtroom. The audience is mostly men that served in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.

These vets, in their 20s and 30s, are here because they’ve committed crimes, and they want to turn their life around. One of them is Mike from Orange, a 29-year-old Army veteran who’s in court for sending a text message threatening a man’s life.

“I lost my leg out in Afghanistan," Mike said. "I was going through a mixed range of emotions — anger. You know, just the transition from commando to civilian is a rough one, and I definitely was not handling it right," he said. "Once you push your friends and family away... I got through in this program, it gave me a lot more support. Now I’m starting to get friends and family back.”

Much of the family-like support here stems from Orange County Superior Court Judge Wendy Lindley. She helped start the county’s veterans court. It handles only cases involving combat veterans that have somehow been caught up in the criminal justice system.

Lindley said the idea of veterans court came up after she’d handled the case of a vet who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. She said the young man later died from a drug overdose.

"It just seems like the right thing to do. I feel that we have a real moral obligation to assist these individuals in restoring them so that they can participate fully in their community once they return," she said on the Patt Morrison show Thursday. "If you remember that they once had the pride of success and earning their uniform and being a respected person who was entrusted with protecting our country, it is so nice to see them restored back to those feelings they had of self respect and dignity."

The vets that come before Lindley often have drug or alcohol problems that won’t get cured by jail. “When they come to us they are facing so many significant problems that if we don’t really provide them with a lot of structure and a lot of opportunity for change, they aren’t going to get well," she said.

For a vet to be accepted into veterans court, a multi-agency team must decide first if rehab will best serve the vet and the public. That vet then has to plead guilty to the crime charged. He or she will get probation, and then enter a four-phase recovery program that takes at least a year and a half.

Lindley is the drill sergeant and her orders are clear and direct: stay clean and sober, stay in school or work or complete volunteer service, go to counseling, take medication, come to court and stay in touch with a probation officer. Follow those orders and everything’s fine. Don’t follow those orders and it’s jail.

Lindley said there are about 50 vets in the program right now. She asked that we not use their last names. She’s worried that people might get the wrong idea about the vets.

Lindley has graduated 15 since the court began. “We’ve had no recidivism from our graduates. They now have jobs. They have reunited with their families," she said. "So even if we just didn’t use the statistics, we would see that the enormous gains they’ve made in relatively short periods of time have certainly justified setting aside this time to assist these combat veterans.”

Lindley said most of these vets are “good kids” that never got into trouble before their time in combat. She often hands out Target gift cards to the ones who do well in recovery.

Army veteran Mike said he’s about halfway through his rehab program. “I wasn’t in school when I started this. I’m in school full-time, doing good and I have a 6-year-old, spend a lot of time with him and just trying to move forward — put the past in the past... just be overall happy," he said. "You know, that’s all I want — be happy."

Mike said he’s studying psychology. He wants to be a social worker so he can help other struggling veterans be happy, healthy — and out of veterans court.

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