Veterans Court comes to Clarksville

July 18, 2012

From the Clarksville Leaf Chronicle
By: Philip Grey

General Sessions Judge Ken Goble banged his gavel at approximately 1:30 p.m. on July 17, and the long-awaited Veterans Court became a reality.

The court is aimed at helping veterans who come to the criminal justice system as a result of drug addictions, homelessness and other situations brought on by the ravages of untreated wartime stress. It will also include some active duty soldiers who end up in the system.

Goble is the captain of a 10-person team, each with an equal vote as to who gets in the program. Treatment for drugs and other issues is a key component.

Another key component of the program is mentorship. Seated along a wall on the left side of the General Sessions courtroom were about a dozen older combat veterans who have volunteered their services, representing a number of local veterans organizations such as Disabled American Veterans, Vietnam Veterans of America, Women Veterans of America, Buffalo Soldiers and Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Veteran to veteran

Veteran and defense attorney Richard Meeks was Goble’s ally in getting the court off the ground and serves as the mentor coordinator. Asked what the function of the mentors would be, Meeks said, “They’re here because they are combat veterans who speak the language of the veteran.”

Monroe Gildersleeve, a Buffalo Soldier and a lifetime member of DAV Chapter 45, said that his role was to be a coach and a fair and honest broker. Talking tough to the veterans in the program was for the district attorney and law enforcement, he said, and the other mentors agreed. The mentors will help with anything and everything they can, including helping veterans in trouble to get things like driver’s licenses and benefits earned from service.

To the first four individuals who appeared before the court on Tuesday afternoon, Goble said that their mentors are not counselors nor law enforcement. “They’re friends,” Goble said, “here to keep you on the right path.”

To the mentors, Goble said, “You know how to lead; put on that leadership hat.”

No easy path

At the outset, Goble made it clear that the program was not a free ride. In reading the mission statement, Goble told the potential participants, “This is for those who have sacrificed and are now in a bad place. This is a chance to get you off the road you’re on.”

That road has been a minefield for many veterans of combat following service. Depending on what statistics you read, somewhere between 20 and nearly 50 percent of this generation’s combat veterans have some degree of post-traumatic or combat stress, and many of them have suffered some type of brain injury, as well.

Still, the Veterans Court, an idea started in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008, was not meant to excuse criminal behavior but to help people find treatment with a structured program with plenty of resources, yet based ultimately on personal responsibility.

The veterans selected for the program will be expected to work and will waive a number of rights inherent in the regular system. Probation will be tough, they will appear in court weekly, with possible twice-weekly drug screenings and regular home visits/welfare checks by law enforcement.

Veterans administration representatives will help with assessments, plans of action and in-patient or out-patient rehabilitation.

As the veteran shows progress over the minimum 12-month program, the rigid supervision will ease. However, Goble said up front that not everyone would make it.

“You have one week to talk this over with your lawyers before deciding to take part,” Goble instructed the potential first candidates. “If you do not successfully complete, you will go back into the system. You lose your representation. They will be relieved of responsibility. Everyone here will be recused.

“I don’t want anyone to think this is a walk in the park.”

Earned Opportunity

In chambers following adjournment, Goble explained how the program, similar to the Drug Court that proceeded it and currently the only Veterans Court operating in Tennessee, came to be.

“Judge Grimes gave me an article about a judge in Buffalo, where they have had success with this program,” said Goble. “What got the ball rolling was the opportunity for federal training in Buffalo and a grant.”

Goble asked Meeks to come on board because Meeks was a veteran of both the military and the drug court process. Both men are hopeful that the low recidivism rates in other places can be replicated here. Most importantly, said Goble, “I believe we can save lives here.”

Goble then sat back and said of the county’s troubled veteran population, as well as those active duty soldiers who may come to the program, “They’ve earned this opportunity. Now they have to earn their completion.”

Almost speaking to himself, the judge asked rhetorically, “Where else in our society do people give up so many rights, to be told where to live and when to work and be shipped off into harm’s way, in a job they can’t just quit? Nowhere else.

“And it’s not just the soldiers; it’s the families, too.”

Recognizing success

A final component brought up by Goble was the need to recognize success.

“We’ll give them consequences when they do wrong,” he said, “but when they do well, they need to have that acknowledged. It could just be a round of applause in the courtroom for someone who really excels and turns their life around. But it’s also one to one stuff that makes a difference – something like movie tickets or a night out for dinner.

“If people or businesses want to help with that, we’d appreciate it.”

Those who want to help can contact Larry Ross, the program administrator, at 931-648-5793 or coordinator Lindsey Chantler at 931-648-7336.