Eleven years ago, Charles King returned home from an Army deployment in Iraq angry and wary of the world and people around him.
The distance between the combat mechanic and the rest of the world widened until he landed in Ramsey County District Court in 2013 for a domestic incident. The timing was fortuitous — the county was getting ready to debut its veterans court, and King would become its first enrollee.
"I pushed everybody away," King said Thursday of his transition back to civilian life. "I was so used to not feeling anything at all. People were making me feel things, and it was scary."
Thursday, King was recognized as one of the first four graduates of the specialized court. King, 34, said he was initially skeptical of veterans court, but that it was pivotal in shifting his perspective on life.
"I saw everybody as having a demon, having a bad soul to them," King said. Now, "I know not everybody's bad."
Michael Husnick, Tar "Tim" Po and Christopher Hvinden also graduated from the program that started in 2014.
The specialized court operates much like mental health, drug and DWI courts, focusing on therapy, programming and hands-on involvement from case managers, mentors and attorneys, among others.
Veterans are referred to the court and can enroll voluntarily. Authorities have said that the court isn't a get-out-of-jail-free card, but rather an intensive approach that holds veterans accountable while providing the mental health therapy, housing and training they need to rebuild their lives.
Ramsey County District Judge Judith Tilsen presided over the graduation and applauded Hvinden for passing more than 100 urine tests in his drunken driving case.
Hvinden, a Marine who served in Africa and Iraq, among other places, said he was homeless and grappling with anxiety when he enrolled in veterans court.
"I was very confused," Hvinden said of civilian life. "Serving in wartime brings up a lot of emotions you try to suppress. It's a whole new culture, trying to be normal."
Hvinden drank to cope with his anxiety. He said veterans court helped him become sober, connected him with transitional housing that eventually led to him finding his own apartment, and encouraged him to do more with his life.
"I've been motivated to make a difference," he said, adding that he now volunteers with Operation: 23 to Zero, a support network for suicidal vets.
The graduates said a key to the program's success is the support they received from the attorneys, case managers, mentors and others in the judicial system. It showed them, they said, that the system could work to help rehabilitate people instead of simply imprisoning them.
"It puts us in check," Po, a Marine, said of the "intrusive and very intensive" but necessary hands-on approach.
"They didn't allow you to fail," said Husnick, who was in the Army.
Many of those supportive people were on hand Thursday, often emotionally recounting the graduates' journeys and impact on the criminal justice system.
"You are truly an inspiration," case manager Erin Bednarek said tearfully to King.
King, like all the participants, was assigned a veteran, in his case Jim Martin, to mentor him through the process. Another veteran's camaraderie was vital, King said.
But it wasn't easy at first for either man.
"I met [King] out in the hall, and thought, 'Wow, is this one scary dude …' " Martin said of their first encounter. "And now he's my brother."
Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708