Jacob Vevea was a rising leader in the Navy before a noncombat shoulder injury forced him to leave the service. When he came home, Vevea dealt with anger and anxiety by drinking.
A year ago, he got drunk and threatened someone. Facing a potential felony charge that would have clouded his future ability to run his small business, Vevea got a gift, he said, when he was accepted into a new Anoka County court that works only with veterans.
In April, he became the court's first graduate. With his completion of the intensive, hands-on program, a judge allowed him to plead guilty to a misdemeanor that will be wiped off his record in October.
Hennepin County launched one of the first and largest veterans courts in the country in 2010. Since then, the number of these innovative programs has continued to expand as many veterans struggle to readjust to civilian life.
There are more than 369,000 veterans in Minnesota. A recent report showed that, since 9/11, nearly 30 percent of the 834,463 Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans treated at VA hospitals and clinics nationally have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Falling through the cracks
"I made a mistake and I got a second chance," Vevea said. "If the court wasn't there for me, my life would have changed a ton."
Anoka County's veterans court is structured like many of the more than 200 others in the United States. Assistant County Attorney C. Blair Buccicone went to his boss to get the court started about a year ago. He acted after seeing his brother, who served two tours in Iraq, and other vets fail to get the help they need and fall through the cracks.
Veterans can be asked to participate in the court or can get involved through a referral. The vets can't have committed a major crime or a crime with a presumptive sentence.
They must be eligible for Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits because the agency picks up the costs of medical, mental health or chemical dependency treatments tailored to vets.
Each participant must meet with the same judge once a month. Before each appearance, the judge, attorneys, probation officials and veterans officials also meet and review each person's case.
Previously, the court system might not even have been aware that someone was a vet until a judge saw it on a pre-sentencing report. Now, all defendants are asked whether they are veterans when going through an evaluation for bail.
A mentor with military experience is assigned to each participant. If vets complete all the requirements, they plead guilty, but the conviction will be expunged from their records. The judge also can order a short probation.
Critics say the vet courts can be expensive, but Anoka and other counties have been able to get staff members and volunteers to help out, said County Attorney Tony Palumbo. An official with Hennepin County estimated that personnel costs for the court could be as high as $800,000 a year.
Buccicone and others bristle at any notion that vets shouldn't receive special court treatment. "Vet courts are more difficult than traditional courts," he said. "And every single person in the court volunteered to die for their country."
Minnesota vets courts
Vevea, 38, who served in the Gulf War, is one of six participants in Anoka County, a number that's expected to increase as word of the program spreads. Hennepin County has nearly 100 participants and Washington County, which started its program a year ago, works with about 20 vets.
Several counties, such as Ramsey, don't have a formal veterans court but have set up a protocol for vets that partly mirrors how the formal ones operate. District Judge Jon Stafsholt, a Vietnam veteran, has developed a protocol in his sprawling district covering 13 counties in western Minnesota. He received a grant to hire a veterans advocate to work in Pope and Stevens counties.
Getting veterans to admit they may have problems to tackle and to consider vets court is difficult because they have been trained to be self-sufficient and tough it out, said Iraq war vet and former state Rep. John Kriesel, Anoka County's director of veteran services. Outreach to the county's nearly 28,000 vets is a big part of his job, which he started a year ago.
"The wars have been going on for so long now that everybody knows a story or somebody who has been involved," Kriesel said.
The vets court session in Anoka in April showed the variety of issues facing participants. One man was told by District Judge Jenny Walker Jasper that some officials favored his removal from the program because he wasn't taking his requirements seriously. In the end, the judge allowed him to stay on.
Another veteran talked about his post-traumatic stress disorder therapy and "learning to battle false beliefs of the world and what happened to me in Iraq." A third vet was struggling over his gravely ill father. He was new to the court after getting his fourth DWI since 2006.
But the first order of business was Vevea's graduation. Walker Jasper talked of how he "served our country with distinction" and said, "We are sure we won't be seeing you here again." After she spoke, the entire courtroom stood and applauded.
Vevea was too emotional to speak to a reporter that day, but agreed to an interview several weeks later. He hadn't heard about vets court until a lawyer advocated for him. He never missed any of his couple's counseling, anger management, and drug and alcohol classes. He admitted it was painful to rehash war experiences and mistakes he had made in his personal life.
But Vevea said being surrounded by veterans and caring people working for the court helps ease the trauma for those "who have seen horrific things."
"You don't want to relive it again, but it impacts your life," he said. "You are forced by the court to deal with it and you attack it."