Veterans Treatment Court Graduation Celebrates Lives Changed

November 11, 2020

America’s service members put everything on the line for their country, and in many cases the sacrifices they make take a toll. Thankfully, active duty service members and veterans in Montgomery County have access to an invaluable resource to help them overcome mental health or substance use issues.

The Montgomery County Veterans Treatment Court was founded in 2012 in an effort to address the needs of service members and veterans located near one of the nation’s largest military bases, Ft. Campbell.  Each week, Montgomery County General Sessions Judge Kenneth R. Goble, Jr. presides over the Court, helping service members and veterans who have come into contact with the criminal justice system know that positive change is possible in their lives.

On the day before Veteran’s Day, the Court held a graduation ceremony for participants who have completed the rigorous 12-month program and are ready to take control of their lives with a newfound optimism and resolve.  These 16 graduates, the largest class in program history, had reached Phase V of the program, a stage best summarized by the phrase “Phase V VTC for life,” that many of them mentioned while reading prepared remarks at the graduation. The phrase reminds graduates that the issues they face require continued vigilance, but also that they are part of a community support system that will be there for them as long as they need it. No VTC graduate really leaves the program alone. All Phase V participants continue to have access to the resources, court staff, and mentors that have helped foster in a turnaround in their lives.

The Court is open to veterans or active service members in Montgomery County who have been convicted of misdemeanors or a range of non-violent felony crimes. Many participants, for instance, come to the program after having been convicted of a DUI.

Judge Goble described some of the commonalities between many court participants.

“Folks who come into our court have generally been struggling with whatever they struggle with for a long time, and it just manifested itself in a criminal charge,” Judge Goble said. “Many times, they’re self-medicating; they’re wrestling with things they’ve gone through…Many times, we’ve had participants who were struggling with the thought of suicide, and that’s what brought them into the criminal justice system and to us. What we try to do is find a way for them to have as good of a quality of life as possible and be as productive citizens as they can be.”

There is no one-size-fits-all program for participants. While everyone must consent to some ground rules, like random drug screenings, each person’s journey through the Veterans Treatment Court is customized according to their needs.

“Each participant has their own individual treatment plan,” Veterans Treatment Court Director Edward Moss said. “We do not want to have a cookie cutter program where everyone is getting the same thing. That is a disservice because everyone does not have the same issues or concerns and everyone is not at the same place in life.”

The range of needs varies. Judge Goble said some people come in homeless and jobless and need help with those immediate crises. Many have not only material needs, but are dealing with a constellation of issues, all of which can be mutually reinforcing.

Veterans can “come back with that survivor’s guilt, mental trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or whatever it may be,” Moss, an Army veteran, said. “What happens, we find, is that far too often individuals use alcohol or other illegal substances as a way to self-medicate, and that self-medication is really what gets them involved with the criminal justice system. Also, we run into service members with anger issues. It kind of spans the globe: mental health, substance abuse, anger. You name it, we deal with all those individually.”

Participants are offered a variety of services to help them confront and conquer the problems they face. These services include educational opportunities, job placement, inpatient or outpatient rehab, individual counseling, family counseling, veterans benefits, and more. In addition, participants have regular meetings with Judge Goble and Court staff and perform public service work if not employed full time or in school.

They are helped along the way by mentors, who are often past graduates of the program. Each participant in the program is paired with a mentor. Judge Goble said these mentors are crucial because, in many instances, they have gone through what the participants have gone through, and are able to connect with them in a powerful way.

Moss agrees, and sees the mentorship aspect of the program as one of its greatest successes.

“We’ve done extremely well in relation to individual lives being changed,” Moss said. “There’s no foolproof system, but we’ve done extremely well with our individuals so much so that we’ve had some come back and want to become mentors and pay it forward to other people. That’s how you can tell if your program is really working for you, if folks graduate and they want to come back and continue to share and help other people with some of the same things you’ve helped them with.”

As participants make progress, they advance through the program’s various phases. Once they reach Phase V, which usually takes around 12 months, they graduate, with the promise that they can always return for help or access services if they need to.

“The ultimate goal is to give them the tools necessary so they become productive citizens in the community once again and don’t find themselves ever involved in the criminal justice system again,” Moss said.

There is evidence that the Court has been successful in meeting those goals. Its recidivism rate for graduates is just 15 percent, far below the statewide average of 47 percent.

The success of the program can also be measured in the words of the graduates themselves, each of whom spoke during the Phase V promotion ceremony.

“I have a more positive outlook on things going on in my life,” one graduate said. “I’m learning from my past. I’m on a new path and making better decisions.”

“It’s been a long road full of ups and downs, but I’ve finally made it,” said another graduate. “I’ve grown a lot in this program. I’ve learned to deal with my mental health and am a better husband and father. It has helped me change my life for the better.”

That same graduate spoke to the dedication of Judge Goble and the court staff, all of whom were instrumental in his progress.

“Knowing I could call on and count on you all to be there in my times of need or just when I needed to talk is one of the greatest assets of this program,” he said. “Your excellent leadership and strong words of wisdom have made this process truly amazing.”

Judge Goble spearheaded the Veterans Treatment Court back in 2012 after having learned of a similar program in Buffalo, New York. He and a team traveled to Buffalo for federal training and came back down and started the court.

The Court has been a positive force in the lives of Montgomery County service members and veterans ever since, boasting 346 graduates. The process of watching people’s lives change for the better has been constantly rewarding.

“I guess the most impactful thing I’ve heard is when people say we’ve actually saved their lives,” Judge Goble said. “I think in many instances we have. Our team, the staff here and the volunteers, their commitment is unparalleled. They all are here because they want to make a difference.”

Not only has the Court made a profound impact on others, but on Judge Goble as well. It has become an integral part of who he is as a judge, a singular mission in his job as a public servant.

“I think that’s one of the main reasons God put me in this position,” Judge Goble said. “I’ll never know for sure I guess but I do think it’s become a calling beyond just being a judge. I think this may be why I was put here.”

As the ceremony wound down, Judge Goble asked the participants to take what they have learned and use it to improve the lives of others. In that way, the Phase V promotion was not so much an ending as a beginning.

“Don’t make the same mistake twice,” he said. “Whether you’re in a leadership role in the Army or whatever you do in your life, pay it forward. Be an example for somebody else.”

According to the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, there are 10 Veterans Courts in the state.

Learn more about the Montgomery County Veterans Treatment Court on its website.