From PTSD to traumatic brain injuries, the invisible wounds of war can be just as devastating as the physical ones. And for some, that service-related trauma can lead to other issues, including problems with the law. In Colorado's 4th Judicial District, which encompasses El Paso and Teller Counties, there’s a court program designed for vets with trauma who've been charged with certain misdemeanors and low-level felonies. It's called the Veterans Trauma Court, and it was recently recognized as a national leader among similar programs around the country.
Michael Flora traces his struggle with addiction and mental illness back to his time in Iraq. He was driving a Humvee in a convoy late one night when he made a wrong turn. Going 60-miles-per-hour, he went off the road, straight into a dry canal bed.
"In that moment, when I was going over the road into the canal," recalls Flora, "I thought to myself, ‘I always wondered how I was going to die, and this must be it.’
The Humvee rolled, and landed upside down in the ditch. Remarkably, Flora was okay--physically. But the incident took a toll.
"After that, something changed in me," he says. He became depressed, even suicidal. He was sent back stateside to Fort Hood to get treatment, but that only compounded his depression.
"I experienced a whole lot of guilt and shame for leaving Iraq early, leaving my team behind, and I really struggled with that," he remembers.
Flora was medically retired with combat-aggravated bipolar disorder in 2009. He moved to Colorado Springs, where his parents lived, and descended deep into addiction. Hallucinogens at first, then meth. He failed to hold down jobs, had unhealthy relationships, and, in 2012, found himself sitting in a cell at the El Paso County jail, looking at 2-6 years for asking a girlfriend not to testify in a restraining order trial, a low-level felony.
"The lawyer that I saw, the public defender, in jail, he told me, ‘you really want to get involved with the Veterans Trauma Court,’" he says.
The court, often referred to as the VTC, was created for people like Flora. It’s designed to treat the underlying trauma that can sometimes drive vets to commit certain crimes.
"When someone comes into the program, I tell them a couple things," says Judge David Shakes, who oversees the program. "The first is, ‘this is a treatment court, we’re all about treatment, this is different than being in the regular court system, and the people in the room are all committed to your rehabilitation.'"
Shakes is a veteran himself, having retired from the Army Reserves in 2008 after 33 years of service. His chambers are decorated with military memorabilia, and in his courtroom, he keeps a metal ammo container stocked with candy. Small touches, but they symbolize a larger effort on the part of the judge to show vets that, in the VTC, they are among their own and can be open about their experiences.
"It's a comfortable environment, it's not talking to civilians that have no idea what it's like," he says. "The people in the room know what it's like."
In the VTC, Shakes and his team of probation officers, court officials, and other support staff lead offenders through a treatment program tailored specifically for those with a military background. On average it takes 18 months, with regular drug testing, check-ins, and therapy.
Research shows that people experiencing PTSD are 2-4 times more likely to struggle with substance abuse, and vets with service-related trauma are at increased risk of ending up in the criminal justice system. The VTC program rests on the premise that rather than prison, vets who've fallen afoul of the law often need therapeutic intervention. It's a philosophy known as "therapeutic jurisprudence," and judge Shakes says, it works.
"And by ‘work,'" he adds, "I mean create a better opportunity for rehabilitation for the offender, reduce recidivism, and ultimately save the community money. All in the context of keeping the community safe."
The Vets Court model was pioneered in Buffalo, NY, in 2004. Based on treatment methods proven effective in drug courts, the idea quickly spread. The 4th Judicial District program started in 2009. Now there are more than 350 vets courts nationwide, says Scott Swaim, who directs the national organization, Justice For Vets.
"Our veterans have experienced a lot of things that non-veterans have not," he says, "so you have a different population that has had unique experiences, unique traumas--but they also have unique resources."
That can include access to the VA and federal money, as well as a range of non-profit service providers that focus on veterans issues. Swaim says a successful vets court marshals all those resources to help people in the program.
Justice for Vets recently recognized the local program as one of four national mentor courts, in large part thanks to the buy-in across the community, from the local non-profits that work with the program to the prosecutor’s office.
Michael Allen is senior deputy district attorney in the 4th Judicial District. He oversees the prosecutors who work with the program.
"I’m all for the Veterans Trauma Court," he says. "I think it’s a great program. It’s been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had as a prosecutor, and I think it’s primarily due to seeing people make that turnaround that you see them make when they’re in that veterans program."
The program is not without its critics, though. While many vets in the court are there for traffic or drug-related offenses, some are there on more serious charges, like domestic violence incidents. Occasionally victims express concern about the program, says Allen.
"Something that we hear quite a bit is, I don’t want this to be a ‘get out of jail free card,’" he explains. "Once we explain how strenuous it actually is, it kind of turns them around on that issue."
SherryLynn Boyles directs TESSA, which provides services for victims of domestic violence. Speaking about treatment programs in general, she says she worries about the potential risks to victims.
“We know from research that it’s not going to be 100% effective. So we know there’s going to be offenders that are going to be continuing to, really, torture their partner,” she says.
But, she adds, when used cautiously, treatment programs like the VTC can be a valuable tool. "[They] give that option of working with offenders, working with abusers who want to make a change, and when offenders want to make a change, there’s a better chance that that will happen."
Four times a year, a crowd gathers in a jury room at the El Paso County courthouse for the Veterans Trauma Court graduation ceremony. Vets who’ve completed the program share emotional testimony of overcoming addiction and reconnecting with loved ones. Judge Shakes leads the ceremony.
"What we’re celebrating today are people that have made a significant change in their lives," he announces. "The hard work that they have put in, you will recognize when you hear their stories."
The program is less than a decade old in El Paso County, so data on its success is hard to come by. But early research shows decreased rates of PTSD, substance abuse, and recidivism among participants.
For Michael Flora, who graduated from the program in 2015, there’s no doubt that it works.
"It made me really grow up and take charge of my life," he says.
With the help of the program, he kicked his meth addiction and got treatment for the trauma he’d experienced in the service. Today, he’s a volunteer peer mentor with the VTC. He’s married, owns a home, and is in school to become a social worker, things he says were unimaginable when he first landed in court five years ago.
To date, 245 vets have graduated from the program since its inception in 2009.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of Scott Swaim, director of Justice for Vets.
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