At Special Court, Veterans Get Needed Support

Maynard Johnson Jr. had hit rock bottom and knew it.

In October 2012, the Kansas City resident, who had served a two-year stint in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, lost his job and faced federal assault charges for attacking his Postal Service supervisor.

Johnson, 59, smoked crack cocaine and marijuana. He often showed up for work late, if at all. The drugs consumed his life, clouded his judgment and made him abusive toward family and friends.

Eventually, needing to turn his life around, he checked himself into the Veterans Affairs hospital. From there, he was guided into the Kansas City Veterans Treatment Court to help end his downward spiral.

"I got to the point where I didn't care anymore, and it seemed like the world was against me," Johnson said. "I knew I needed some help. I didn't care about anything or anybody because nobody cared about me."

The Veterans Treatment Court is a division of the Kansas City Municipal Court. Launched in 2009, it is modeled after the Veterans Treatment Court that began a year earlier in Buffalo, N.Y., city court. That program provides alternatives to jail time to military veterans who commit nonviolent offenses. Qualified veterans receive counseling or other assistance.

Similar options are offered in Kansas City. Veterans suffering from drug abuse and mental health issues appear on a special municipal docket. After going through a screening and assessment by the court, veterans participate in a 12-month treatment program instead of going to trial.

So far, about 80 veterans have graduated from the program, said Judge Ardie Bland, who presides over the court.

"Many of the veterans were caught in a cycle of committing crimes because many of them were dealing with issues of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), other kinds of trauma, substance abuse and homelessness," Bland said.

Bland hopes to stop the cycle.

His idea was to expand on the court session that municipal judges presided over during the annual Stand Down event, during which veterans receive clothes, haircuts, housing assistance, counseling, job placement help and military benefits to help get them back to self-sufficiency.

"We found many veterans running, ducking and dodging from the police all year just waiting for that one day where they could come to court and try to get their cases resolved," said Bland, who was appointed to the municipal court in the spring of 2008. "It was ridiculous to me that veterans would run and hide from the police after bravely serving their country."

Bland and Elena Franco, who then was the presiding municipal judge, went to Buffalo to observe its Veterans Treatment Court. Bland borrowed aspects of treatment courts in Buffalo and in Oklahoma to develop the effort in Kansas City.

Today there are about 270 similar treatment courts throughout the United States, Bland said.

Participants often are identified by patrol officers who refer them to the program. Others may be encouraged to enroll when they appear in municipal court. Participation is voluntary.

Bland, along with the municipal prosecutor, a public defender or private attorney, and case managers from the municipal court and the VA develop a treatment plan for each participant. The veteran signs an agreement to abide by the treatment guidelines.

Once enrolled, the veterans go through a program that includes numerous court appearances and treatment sessions for mental health counseling or substance abuse. Sanctions can be levied for participants who fail to follow the court's instructions. Incentives are awarded for compliance.

Mayor Sly James, who served as a Marine, praised the program for its stringent requirements of the participants and positive outcomes.

"I can tell you that from my perspective, there have been a lot of people who have been benefited by it," James said. "Those who come out at the end that I've talked to, they said it changed their lives.

"It's just another way of trying to find those individualized approaches that actually can have a positive impact on people's lives when it looked like they were headed down the toilet."

Participants partner with a mentor, usually a fellow veteran, who helps guide them through the process and offers moral support. Johnson, who was among eight participants who graduated earlier this month, said he was happy to receive the help.

From 1972 to 1974, Johnson was part of a military company tasked with transporting infantry soldiers out of Cambodia and back to the states.

The potential to engage in a gunbattle with the enemy was present constantly.

"Just the idea of having flyovers at midnight and being awakened by general quarter alarms were always there," said Johnson, who attended Central High School but dropped out at 17 and later earned a GED. "You wake up out of a deep sleep and the next thing you know, you're sitting with a gun in your hand waiting for somebody to drop a bomb on you.

"For a teenager, it was kind of dramatic."

Earlier this year, Johnson received tickets for speeding, driving without a license, not wearing a seat belt, driving with a suspended license and not having auto insurance. Those troubles coupled with the assault charge forced Johnson to seek professional help.

"It was totally out of character for me. I don't know what happened," he said. "In six months I went from being a model citizen to being a menace."

Johnson went into the treatment program in January and attended weekly counseling sessions. Over the next several months, those sessions were reduced to once a month. Johnson, who still has the federal charges pending, said he is now sober and is getting his life back in order.

"Nothing was going to change unless I had to make that change," he said. "They didn't force me to do it. They let me realize that on my own. It helped me realize that it was nobody's fault that I was in the position I was in except my own."

Bland expects to see the treatment program grow because many current soldiers have experienced multiple deployments and the number of trauma-affected veterans probably will increase.

"I never felt the veterans, especially those who served in Vietnam, got what they deserved," Bland said. "For the sacrifice they made for this country, I don't think we have done enough for them. And this (treatment court) is a matter of doing what is right."

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