Los Angeles war vets find a straight and narrow path through veterans court

Erika Aguilar/KPCC

Willie Garner captures a graduation moment with Judge Michael Tynan who oversees Veterans Court, a program at L.A. Superior Court that allows war veterans to enter into an 18-month mental health and rehab program that could lead to criminal charges being dismissed after completion.

Five war veterans celebrated Monday a fresh start at clean criminal records after 18 months of drug rehabilitation and mental health classes through a special veterans court in Los Angeles.

Veterans Court, launched two years ago, is like a hybrid mental health and drug court specifically offered to veterans who have served in the U.S. military. They've experienced mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain disorder or military sexual trauma. The defendants often face non-violent felony charges - more times than not, drug charges.

“You gave me a chance to do what I’ve always wanted to do but couldn’t do,” said Vietnam War vet Robert Garcia as he accepted the program graduation certificate and paperwork that said his drug charges were dismissed.

Garcia, 58, says he was a “full-blown alcoholic” who always ended up in trouble and drunk. A Veterans Affairs social worker met Garcia in prison and redirected him to veterans court at the L.A. Superior Court. That's where he met Judge Michael Tynan.

“He’s a nice guy,” Richard King, another veteran who graduated from the program Monday, said about the judge. “But he’s firm."

Defendants check in with Tynan every month or two to report on how they're progressing in their court-ordered classes.

On Monday, the judge ordered one veteran who was supposed to be graduating back to his courtroom by the end of the month. He was caught with drugs again and was being charged in possession at another courtroom. Judge Tynan ordered the man's case to be transferred to his courtroom and demanded that the man bring with him to his next hearing a 500-word essay about why he was caught with drugs - and a plan to not do it again.

The judge has the straight-up personality to deal with people who need more than a little jail time a court hearing to get them back on the right track. He's overseen other special courts and has served in Germany as a medical lab tech with the U.S. Army from 1958 to 1960. He said he never experienced combat war like some of the men he sees in Veterans Court but he recognizes their courage.

“I tell the guys, let’s get on with the life that’s ahead of you and stop worrying about what is behind you,” Tynan said. “Don’t forget about it because I don’t want you going back into that but I do want you to look ahead and think about what you can accomplish. ”

After a defendant is deemed qualified to work though veteran’s court, the federal Veterans Affairs agency determines what type of treatment he or she needs, and recommends a program for each veteran.

In veterans court, it’s difficult to tell apart the prosecutors from the public defenders. The courtroom hums with attorneys conferencing across tables with each other and walking to speak with the veterans on the courtroom benches.

75 veterans are active participants in the veterans court program. Most are men who have served in the Vietnam or Korean Wars. Programs such as veterans court weren’t around for them when they returned home, said Judge Tynan.

"We're not showing favoritism as much as we are recognizing the difficulties that these men have faced because they have served their country," he said.

Only a handful of Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans are enrolled in the program. A Veterans Affairs social worker said sometimes those vets face more serious and violent charges that don’t qualify them for veterans court.

Veterans court is reserved for military service members who have committed non-violent felonies such as drug use or possession, petty theft, and DUI.

“Some veteran specific crimes we’ve seen is one guy who tear gassed an area,” said attorney Ben Gales with the Public Counsel Law Center. “Police evasion is another.”

Judge Michael Tynan said he would like to see more special courts like his expand in other areas of Los Angeles but court budget cuts could stand in the way. This summer, L.A. Superior Court announced it was closing all informal juvenile traffic courts as part of a $30 million dollar cost-cutting effort that included laying off more than 400 workers.

The VA social workers and public defenders attorneys say they're monitoring the court funding issue. The court system can always consolidate special court programs in a crunch but so far there's no word about that fate for LA's veterans court.

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