Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center - Houston, Texas
Veterans Court Honors Recent Graduates
Houston VA Medical Center recently celebrated its 10th year of Harris County Veterans Court by honoring the latest graduates in an off-campus ceremony.
Each graduate faced felony charges and rather than go the traditional court route they participated in Veterans Court, which does its best to eliminate jail time.
Marco Rodriguez, a Marine Corps Veteran, was charged with felony assault in late 2017.
“I know I have issues with anger and PTSD,” said Rodriguez. “These are issues I needed to deal with, so I am thankful I was allowed to take this route.”
Veterans Court utilizes fines, fees, community service, mental health treatment options, and as a last resort, jail.
“We try to avoid jail time for them whenever possible,” said the Honorable George Powell, 351st District Court, Harris County.
Powell volunteers his services to Veterans Court and cherishes the opportunity to help Veterans turn their lives around.
“I find it unbelievably rewarding,” he said. “Seeing their success is my reward. They are working hard to improve their lives. I’m really proud of them. It’s my honor to do this. I love it and appreciate the opportunity.”
Rodriguez sought services in the community and the Houston VA Medical Center. He learned many things about himself, including accountability and the emotions that pushed him to physical violence.
“I met with a VA family therapist for 4 months,” he said. “It taught me to recognize signals and how to de-escalate situations. We focused on family issues and productive ways to communicate. I also talked about flashbacks and nightmares with my VA mental health provider.”
Veterans Courts began in 2008 and now boasts over 400 court programs throughout the country. Houston was the first city in Texas to pilot the program.
“We’ve seen the positive effect,” said Lori Coonan, LCSW and Veteran Justice Outreach specialist. “Veterans will tell you without the program their lives would be much different.”
Rodriguez agrees. Without Veterans Court, his life likely would have spiraled downward.
“Thirty seconds flipped my life upside down,” he said. “Felony charge, lose everything, my job … everything. My life would’ve been totally different were it not for this program. I wouldn’t be focused on my mental health. I’d be focused on trying to pay my bills.”
The ability to focus on mental health is perhaps the most important aspect of the program. Many Veterans prior to initiating Veterans Court would begin treatment, but didn’t always finish it, said Coonan. Court supervision gives the Veteran the incentive to complete the treatment.
Senior Veterans Court Mentor Manny Satarain likens the role of mentor to that of a sponsor in AA.
“We’ll take them to coffee and just talk with them and get them back on track so they can finish the program,” said Satarain. “I am in AA myself and being a mentor is very similar. I am here to help others avoid what I went through—to avoid being a knucklehead like I used to be. I just try to give them hope. That is my reward.”
Rodriguez was so inspired by his mentor that he now wants to pay it forward and become a Vet Court mentor himself.
“It’s a support system,” he said. “I can call my mentor for anything. It’s like being back in the military where everyone wants to help. They want to see you succeed. The support is unbelievable. It feels like family.”
Veterans who face felony charges and are interested in Veterans Court may request that their current defense attorney and home court initiate an application for the Harris County Veterans Court. Veterans also may call Lori Coonan, LCSW and Veterans Justice Outreach Specialist at 832-260-1361 for more information or Sara Michelle Barnett of the Harris County Community Supervision and Corrections Department at 713-755-2559.