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By Taylor Knopf

As offenders came before district court Judge Jacquelyn Lee on Wednesday, she asked if they would be going somewhere for Thanksgiving and who in the family would cook the turkey.

To one, she asked to see photos of his baby, born the week before. Everyone from the district attorney to the judge fawned over the pictures.

They are all veterans of the U.S. military. All have broken the law. Most struggle with substance abuse. And they are all there for Harnett County’s special two-year diversion program called Veterans Treatment Court.

One veteran earned a gift card for following the rules of the court. Lee asked if he wanted one for iTunes, McDonalds or Starbucks.

To another, she congratulated on starting a new job and asked for his vision statement.

As another veteran advanced to the final stage of treatment court, he told the judge he would like to mentor future veterans through the program.

One received a compliance excellence award.

“I can’t find the words,” the man said accepting his certificate. “You all saved my life. God led me to this court. You did so much for me and others.

“It’s easy to get discouraged in the beginning, but you take it in increments,” he continued. “You all are angels. You volunteer and help us out.”

After congratulating the veteran, Lee encouraged him to come back and visit.

This is not an average courtroom. Typically, the district attorney and judge know little about an offender’s personal life. Almost no one sincerely thanks a judge. And surely, few offenders want to go back and visit a court.

Medallions from all of the armed services line the walls of the Harnett County Veterans Treatment Court. Photo credit: Taylor Knopf

But in this court, special relationships form. Veterans Treatment Court is an all-encompassing support network for the individual.

“I tell them, keep your hands, your feet, legs and arms inside the car and we will help you get to where you need to go,” Lee said.

How it works

Veterans Treatment Court is a diversion program for military men and women who break the law and have committed a crime related to something that happened during their time of service. For example, many veterans abuse substances while self-medicating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or an injury sustained in the military. Judge Lee said they see a range of crimes, such as drug possession, petty crimes related to obtaining drugs and driving under the influence.

Harnett County started the first veterans court in North Carolina in 2013. There are two others in North Carolina in Cumberland and Buncombe counties. The first in the U.S. was established in 2008 in Buffalo, N.Y., and there are more than 300 similar courts across the country.

Harnett County’s veterans court is a regional bench serving locations as far as 60 miles from Lillington, where the court is based. Since receiving a federal grant in 2016, Lee said she sees veterans from as far away as New Hanover, Nash, Edgecombe, Durham and Duplin counties. Lee said there are 44 veterans making their way through the program in Harnett right now.

The motto of the court is “keeping free those who kept us free.” Every court session begins with a reading from that day in military history.

Mark Teachy, an Army vet, coordinates the Veteran Treatment Court in Harnett County. Photo credit: Taylor Knopf

The program takes a veteran about two years if he or she stays on track. There are five phases, each with different requirements.

Daily call-ins are required. At the beginning, a veteran is tested for drugs and alcohol twice a week. They must meet with their case manager, veteran mentor and the judge weekly during the first few phases. There are court assignments, such as weekly journaling. The veterans go through mental health, substance abuse or anger management treatment as necessary.

Each phase requires a certain duration of sobriety in order to move to the next. By phases three and four, the veterans are supposed to get a job or volunteer. They create a care plan for themselves and are required to meet all their financial obligations.

Although Lee said she cannot reduce a sentence for DUI in the veterans court, many vets choose to go through the program anyway to help maintain their sobriety.

There are incentives and sanctions ranging from gift cards and sobriety wristbands to 500-word essays and three days in jail.

Program participation could lead to a reduced sentence for the veteran, or a felony dismissal if they graduate. So far, no graduates have committed another crime.

According to Mark Teachy, the Veterans Treatment Court coordinator, the average age of participants is 32. About 60 percent served in the Army and 20 percent in the Marines. Most had multiple deployments to the Middle East.

Life changing

Coordinating this program in Harnett was the first job Teachy, an Army vet, got four years ago after returning from Iraq. He said it’s life changing for people in a way he understands. He said he struggles with some similar issues after exiting the military.

“This way I can give back to the veterans,” he said.

For Jacob Ocker, the program is changing the trajectory of his life. Ocker medically retired from the Air Force in 1999 with a traumatic brain injury. He said a shell case from an airplane knocked in a piece of his skull, damaging his brain. Last year, someone stabbed him in the neck, requiring multiple surgeries to repair the damage.

Ocker became dependent on alcohol and drugs to deal with the pain.

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The first day he came into veteran treatment court in March, Ocker said he was scared and still using at the time.

Ocker said he’s going through substance abuse treatment and the court is helping him with the expenses.

“But since I’ve been clean, everything has been going great,” Ocker said. “My life is turning around for the better. Everything is looking up. I have a relationship with a beautiful woman I love with all my heart.”

He said before, he had never been able to talk to her because his alcohol dependence got in the way. But now, his girlfriend Tina comes with him to many of his Wednesday court hearings.

“I’m proud of him,” she said. “Three years ago, we couldn’t have been a couple.”

Keeping rapport

Before court goes into session, Teachy, the judge, the DA, a minister, a social worker, a probation officer, veteran mentors, a Veteran Affairs representative and others meet around a table in a closed room.

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At the end of the table, there are binders of various thicknesses with last names of veterans printed on the spines. The group talks about the progress each one of these veterans has made over the past week or so. They share their interactions with the individual, talking about what he needs or wants and making recommendations for next steps.

“It’s a holistic approach,” Lee said. “You have to be aware of what’s going good in their life or that’s causing stress in their life.”

Lee’s husband served in Vietnam, so she said she recognizes the unique issues veterans have. She’s been involved with the veteran court in Harnett for four years and took over as the lead judge two years ago.

“It’s just something that I needed to do so that it would be the right person in here,” she said. “The rapport between the veteran and the judge, through the training that I have, is one of the most important factors for this court.”

She aims to spend at least three minutes each week with every veteran to build a relationship and show them that even the judge cares about them. Every week, the veterans present their journals to Lee in court and she said she learns much about their lives this way.

Lee said she had no idea one of her veterans was an excellent drummer because he was very private. But she read it in his journal and asks about it regularly.

“I love to read what they write,” she said. “Some are very brief. One guy, if i give him a topic, he researches it and writes three or four pages.”

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Taylor Knopf

Taylor Knopf writes about mental health, including addiction and harm reduction. She lives in Raleigh and previously wrote for The News & Observer. Knopf has a bachelor's degree in sociology with a...