Drug court aims to help struggling veterans

BLUE EARTH – Veterans can get in trouble with the law just like anyone else, said David Hanson, Veterans Services officer in Faribault County, but for veterans, the roots of the problem can go back to their military service.

Veterans can have anger issues, mental health problems, chemical dependency, homelessness and joblessness.

“(Officials) realize there’s a link, a high-probability it’s caused by military service,” Hanson said. “They realize these young men and women are suffering from PTSD or depression. That’s why they’re in the situation they’re in.”

In Blue Earth County, Chief Prosecutor Patrick McDermott saw the pattern of veterans coming through and was instrumental in starting a Veterans Drug Court there.

Since March, the Veterans Drug Court was opened up to the other counties in the Fifth Judicial District: Martin, Faribault, Jackson, Nicollet and Brown counties. The only other Veterans Drug Court is in Hennepin County.

Veterans Drug Court is in the same family with Adult Drug Court and Family Dependency Treatment Court, but focuses on veterans’ needs.

The process starts when a veteran enters the legal system, for say a DWI, and appears before a judge, said Kevin Mettler, Veterans Court coordinator.

A veteran can request to be put in Veterans Court or they can be referred to the program by an official. The program is optional and the veteran can decide not to do it. Even if he or she wants to participate, numerous officials have to agree to their placement in the program and there are conditions to acceptance, such as no violent behavior.

Hanson has watched Judge Robert Walker interact with the veterans.

“Puts everyone right on the spot,” Hanson said. “Asks key questions: Have you found employment? How are you doing on your sobriety?

“I was surprised at the honesty of the veterans,” Hanson admitted. “I think they want to be held accountable. They’re used to the military holding them accountable.”

The program is stringent, but it actually works in the veterans’ favor, Hanson said, because veterans are used to a regimented schedule in the military.

And it’s like a military hitch, too. Veterans Drug Court is a 12- to 18-month commitment.

Once in the program, the veteran works with a team that has connections in various areas, including housing, education, jobs, drug or alcohol counseling and veteran service groups, like the Veterans Administration and the Wounded Warrior Service Guide.

Who the veteran is connected to depends on what their needs are. If they were arrested for theft because they can’t find a job, they would be connected to team members who could show them how to translate their military training into a real world job, get a GED or specialized training, and financial counseling.

“Their peer mentor has to be a veteran,” Hanson said, “so they’re dealing with people that relate to them.”

“We try to match them as much as possible with someone who served in the same branch (of the military),” Mettler added.

Hanson said a dozen people have gone through the Blue Earth County program so far. They just accepted their first woman into the program, Mettler added.

Both men have great hopes for the future.

“I see a lot of them improve their lives,” Hanson said.

“I hope that we can help one person, that one guy gets the services he needs so he can stop the cycle,” Mettler said. “If we can find a way to stop that cycle, then I think we’ve done our job.”

The program has more far-reaching effects than just the veteran.

“The program will help family members also,” Mettler said. “The children are hurting and broken, as well. We try to help the veterans, but help the family also.”

For more information, contact Hanson at (507) 526-6268 or Mettler at kevin.mettler@courts.state.mn.us