BECKLEY, W.Va. (AP) — In an office outside Judge Andrew Dimlich’s chambers on the bottom floor of the Raleigh County Judicial Annex, nine men and women in professional attire sit at a boardroom table.
At the center of the table, among their legal pads and coffee cups, is a landline telephone dialed into the Martinsburg VA Medical Center.
With the call on speakerphone, Judge Dimlich asks, “How have you been?” A veteran on the other line responds, “I’ve been doing great.”
He shares an update about his health and some exciting news about an invitation to a speaking event.
The judge offers congratulations, and asks if there are any issues or problems he or other members at the table need to address.
The man says no, and the judge adds, “All right, well, you keep up the good work.”
Another veteran, this one much more soft spoken than the last, picks up the line. He, too, shares an update with the team.
A woman at the left side of the boardroom table smiles broadly and says to the man, “You’re doing everything we’re asking of you. We’re really proud of you.”
These men, along with two others, are the first participants of the Raleigh County Veterans Court — a specialty court offering veterans who have committed a nonviolent crime in Raleigh County a chance to get their lives back on track.
To qualify for the program, their crime must in some way be attributable to their military service.
Judge Dimlich said the issue does not have to be combat-related for a veteran to be approved. For example, one veteran in the program was tasked with delivering the news to families that their loved one had died.
“You can look at a guy’s service and what he’s been through,” said Brandon Steele, Raleigh County assistant prosecuting attorney. “We have to ask ourselves, ‘Is this person ready to face the problem head on? Or are they looking for a free pass?’ ”
Dimlich emphasizes that Veterans Court is not a free pass: “It takes a lot more time getting through the process than just dealing with criminal charges.”
Raleigh County Magistrate Steve Massie said the U.S. wouldn’t be the country it is today without the service of veterans.
“If we can attribute their problems to what they did for us, we owe them the opportunity for this.”
When someone is arrested, one of the first questions a defense attorney will ask is, “Are you a veteran?”
If the answer is yes, and the individual was honorably discharged, that person may be a candidate for Veterans Court.
Their service will be confirmed by the VA, and the Veterans Court team will assemble, every other Thursday at 3 p.m., to review the standing of current participants and consider new applicants.
Applicants are asked, “How did you get from honorably discharged to here? Tell us what’s going on in your life.”
If veterans are accepted into the program, their criminal charges are placed on hold while the court helps them address underlying issues — everything from housing and employment to substance abuse and PTSD treatment.
Steele said the program varies in duration based on the needs of the individual. If veterans successfully complete the program, charges can be completely dismissed or dropped to a misdemeanor, at the discretion of the prosecutor. If they do not complete the program, they go back to square one, with charges still pending.
“I’ve found these veterans are not just receptive to the program because of the reduced charges,” Steele said. “They don’t want to be the person they’ve become and they’re asking for help.”
He said the program’s administrators want to help the veterans meet their personal, career and family goals.
The first Veterans Court in the U.S. was established in 2008 in Buffalo, N.Y. Since then, programs have followed suit across the country.
Aside from Raleigh County, three other programs are available in West Virginia — in Putnam, Wayne and Kanawha counties. Mercer County is in the early stages of creating a program.
Most of the Raleigh County cases have involved drug use, Steele said, which requires long-term rehabilitation.
Although the Beckley VA Medical Center does not offer long-term rehabilitation for substance use, facilities in Martinsburg and Salem, Virginia, do.
Steele said some veterans simply do not know what services are available to them through the VA. But Veterans Court works with participants to match them with the appropriate tools and resources.
Jackie Hartsog, Veterans Justice Outreach coordinator, is the Veterans Court go-to for all things benefits-related.
First, she helps determine whether applicants qualify for VA health care benefits. If they do, she shares with them what services are available and makes recommendations based on her initial assessment.
The VA has a tremendous number of services, she said, including residential and out-patient mental health services. Some diagnoses treated include PTSD, traumatic brain injuries and substance use disorder.
Oftentimes, mental health issues will manifest themselves through the commission of crimes or illegal activities, Hartsog said.
She also said mental health is sometimes associated with homelessness. She and a team at the VA help connect veterans who qualify with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s VA Supportive Housing voucher program.
If approved, the veterans not only get a housing voucher, but also a case manager who works with them in all aspects of their care.
“They make sure they’re making all their appointments, getting their medications and the utilities are staying on.”
Hartsog said once mental health and housing are addressed, employment is needed to help veterans support themselves.
The VA offers employment specialists to help veterans locate jobs. Supported employment and compensated work therapy programs are also available.
Through supported employment, an advocate for the veteran goes to his or her job site and works with the employer to discuss the veteran’s limitations, and to ensure the work schedule isn’t overwhelming.
Through the transitional work therapy program, veterans are hired for jobs within the VA with the goal of moving into stable employment. This program is especially conducive for the scheduling of other needed appointments at the facility.
“What’s so great about my job is having all of these resources I can connect people with,” Hartsog said. “Every piece of the puzzle can come together for them.”
Even if a veteran isn’t accepted into Veterans Court, the services at the VA are still available to them, Hartsog noted.
“I’m going to be working with them, either way.”
Veterans Court team members say the program is intense.
“Only the people who truly desire to change their lives are going to be successful in it,” Steele said.
Every two weeks, the participants have to answer to the court for everything they’ve been doing — getting treatment for substance use disorder, taking care of their families, managing their therapy, going to work, checking in at Day Report and more.
“They get a touch from the state, the VA or a mentor every day,” Steele said. “We talk to them on a daily basis, sometimes multiple times per day.”
Currently, the program welcomes veterans to volunteer as mentors for the program, but as the program progresses, graduates will be asked to become mentors.
Hartsog said working with veterans, she hears a lot about the camaraderie veterans share and the support they receive from one another.
“They can’t get that same connection with their loved ones, but in Veterans Court, they’re together and able to support each other.”
Magistrate Massie, too, said the transition from military life to civilian life can be difficult. So when they get a piece of that brotherhood back, they appreciate it.
Steele agreed that’s sometimes the missing link — “They need to know somebody is there to help me out, that I’m not alone.”
All Veterans Court team members are volunteers — the judge, defense attorneys, prosecutors, mentors and others — and many of them are veterans themselves.
“It’s veterans taking care of veterans,” Massie said. “This is us guys taking care of our men. And those who aren’t veterans, they’re patriots.”
Love of country
Raleigh County Veterans Court participants are also part of a special demographic, as West Virginia has the highest number of veterans per capita in the nation.
“We’re a very patriotic people,” Steele said. “We believe in America and in serving our country.”
He continued, “At some point in this participant’s life, for nothing in return, they have been willing to give up their life for their country. That’s a special moment for a guy, when he has said, ‘My country is greater than me.’ That takes a lot of courage.”
Implementing Veterans Court was one of the first tasks Judge Dimlich set off to accomplish when he took office Jan. 1, 2017.
“They fought for our country. They fought for our freedoms,” Dimlich said. “It’s not a break. They deserve our help. It’s an easy call.”
For more information about Veterans Court, call 304-252-2417.
Massie also invites veterans to Bible Baptist Church, at 2071 Robert C. Byrd Drive in Beckley, at 7 p.m. Wednesdays for a program called Discipled Veterans. He said veterans of all ages gather to talk about transitioning into civilian life and more.