With more than a year of intense monitoring, counseling and peer support, veterans in Denton County accused of a crime can treat underlying military trauma and try to get the criminal allegation dismissed through Veterans Treatment Court.

With enhanced monitoring of any substance abuse through the first phase and many local veteran organizations to join for peer support after they’ve completed the program, veterans in Denton County who are accused of a crime and have an underlying mental health problem can get their case dropped if they complete a treatment program that can last at least a year.

It’s a program that started in New York and made its way to Texas in 2009. Judge Forrest Beadle said the program has between 25 to 35 participants at a time, and the number will drop soon as more commence after Thanksgiving.

“[New York] started seeing veterans coming back from Iraq primarily enter into their drug court and failing, and the reason why they were failing was they were treating them for substance abuse issues, and they suddenly realized [the veterans] had a lot of trauma,” Beadle said.

Beadle, then an assistant district attorney, said he was tasked in 2009 to create a pilot program for a veterans treatment court. It was modeled like a pretrial diversion program, which Beadle said he knew wouldn’t work.

The version in place today was born on Nov. 23, 2012, and has now seen 150 graduates. Beadle noted the Nov. 23 date because he believes that’s when their first veteran pleaded guilty to enter the new program, and that veteran is now close to graduating from Texas Tech University’s School of Law.

Beadle said most of the cases that come through the court deal with domestic violence and driving while intoxicated because veterans who have that military trauma may lash out against loved ones and also self-medicate.

It’s during this time in the treatment court that Beadle tells them to be selfish and look after themselves.

“Very rarely in life do you get an opportunity as an adult … to pause and be selfish about yourself and say, ‘Look, all you people, the haters out there that are a part of this usage life that I have, you’re all gone. I’m going to concentrate on myself for the next 15 months or so,’” Beadle said.

Anytime a case comes before the District Attorney’s Office, they ask the accused if they’re a veteran. They can then find out more about the veterans program, and Beadle said they get referrals from organizations and entities all over the place. The veterans they’ve seen come from various military rankings such as privates and a colonel.

Just like other treatment programs in the county, the veterans court works in a series of phases. Phase 1, Intervention and Stabilization, sees veterans sober up if they self-medicate while they’re being physically monitored for their sobriety.

Beadle said they’re heavily monitored for sobriety through a transdermal alcohol testing bracelet, an ignition interlock that tests for alcohol on a person’s breath, a drug patch and random urine testing.

The ankle bracelet will detect the presence of alcohol as it leaves the body as the skin breathes, the ignition interlock will prevent a car from starting if the driver’s breathalyzer test is over a certain threshold and the drug patch can detect the major opioids, he said.

“The key component of this program is the intensive supervision,” Beadle said. “When they’re in Phase 1, they’re either coming to court twice a month and the other two weeks, they have to go see the supervision officer. … That first phase, they’re seeing somebody or interacting with the court four times [a month]. … And of course, along with their counseling.”

The first phase lasts about four months, active recovery in the second phase can go about five months and the third phase, maintenance and reintegration, lasts from three to four months. The third phase prepares participants to go back to the real world, especially with getting connected to local veteran organizations.

While they do have that intense monitoring for substances in the beginning, Beadle said their hope is that the participant is honest with them about usage.

“It’s not a ‘gotcha’ game. I’m not going to throw you in jail immediately because, you know, you’re an alcoholic and you drank again,” Beadle said. “We anticipate that we’re going to have some bumps along the way but the main thing is for them to be honest with the court. I tell them, if you’re not going to be honest with me, you’re not going to be honest with yourself.”

Most of the veterans they see served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Beadle said, but more Vietnam veterans have been entering the program in recent years. Beadle said those veterans may have suppressed their trauma for a number of years simply by staying busy, but now that they’ve reached retirement age, they find themselves with more time and the trauma can creep back up.

There are a lot of people on the team from people in the courts and justice system, to counselors and mentors and then veteran peer groups and services. Paul Bastaich, the county’s veterans service officer, said the local officer normally doesn’t attend treatment court in other counties, but he was asked to participate early on.

Bastaich said his role is to make sure those veterans know about the Veterans Association health care and make them aware of what their benefits could be.

“There’s a vesting exam to determine the veterans’ needs, whether mental or physical, and that those needs are addressed,” Bastaich said. “What normally happens is most in our court system are in for a mental health disability. More than likely, that’s why they’re in the program. Often it’s tied to combat, military sexual trauma related or traumatic brain injury related. … Maybe some of the things they’re involved in, why they’re at the court, could have been resolved by a better quality of life.”

As the stigma around mental health problems decreases, Bastaich said he sees it happening around the veteran circle, too.

“We make it very clear that it actually takes a lot of courage to stand up and say you need help,” Bastaich said. “That just shows you’re a strong individual and not a weak one. … The veterans court is a true testimony to vets who say, ‘I messed up, I believe it’s due to my behavioral health, this is going to be the best way not only for me to seek help but also be a patriot for showing this works.’”

ZAIRA PEREZ can be reached at 940-566-6882 and via Twitter at @zairalperez.

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