STOCKTON -- Eighteen months ago, after struggling for 10 years to reconcile the experience of being a U.S. Marine who fought in Iraq, Zac Jenkins finally reached a crossroads in his life.
It was April 2017 and Jenkins' best friend, the only friend he could truly connect with, had committed suicide. In the aftermath, Jenkins was plagued even more than usual by the thoughts racing through his head.
"The day of my buddy's funeral, I got into a car accident after blacking out," Jenkins, a 33-year-old Linden native, recalled Monday morning. "I didn't run into any cars. I didn't hurt anybody. But I basically took out some property."
Jenkins received a DUI, but he says he knew the true reason he had blacked out was his battlefield experiences in Iraq, and the post-traumatic stress disorder he will never fully rid himself of.
"I just knew I was struggling," Jenkins said. "I knew I got angry and knew I didn't feel like I fit."
Jenkins was seated on a chair in the hallway on the 10th floor of the Stockton courthouse as he spoke. A few minutes earlier, he'd been one of six graduates in the latest cohort of San Joaquin County Superior Court's Veterans' Court program.
"It's been a distinct honor and privilege for me to preside over your Veteran Court progress, and I'm so very proud of each of you," Judge Barbara Kronlund told the graduates during her remarks Monday morning. "Our entire Veteran Court Team is equally proud of your success, a pride that is deserved and I hope is shared by each of you."
According to Kronlund, there are more than 350 Veterans Treatment Courts in the United States. Up to 10 percent of inmates in the country are veterans, according to Kronlund, and they have a higher incidence of mental-health issues than non-veterans.
Kronlund said jurisdictions save $13,000 a veteran by treating them in court-directed counseling programs instead of putting them behind bars. Superior Court, Veterans Services, the District Attorney and the Public Defender collaborate to support those going through the program.
"The graduates put their life on the line for America and because of the harm they experienced traveled a road that is not reflective of who they are," said District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar, who attended Monday's graduation. "They, like others, deserve a second chance. Today, they have made their families and country proud."
Over more than a year, Jenkins spent hundreds of hours receiving group and individual counseling, much of it with Fix'd, a Tracy-based support program.
The counseling taught him to recognize when he was in a stressful situation and how to calm himself with deep breaths or, if necessary, to remove himself from settings that disturb him.
Jenkins, who was 15 at the time, said he knew on the day of the 9/11 attacks in 2001 that he wanted to serve as a Marine. He fought in Fallujah, Ramadi and Baghdad over the course of 8-month deployments in 2005-06 and 2006-07.
When he returned home after the second deployment, Jenkins said he became an ironworker, often driving long distances and always consciously trying to banish thoughts of what he had witnessed in Iraq.
"I just basically buried my head in work for about 10 years," Jenkins said.
The suicide of his friend, who had not been in the military, proved to be the pivotal moment in Jenkins' losing battle to submerge his emotions.
"I didn't remember leaving my buddy's funeral and that was at 9:30 in the morning," he said. "It was an entire blank. I wasn't ready and prepared. I didn't have the tools to handle that. It put my brain into overdrive and then it blacked out."
Now, Jenkins said, he is looking forward to being a counselor in the Fix'd program.
"He's a phenomenal peer-support counselor," said Jaime Medina, a founder of Fix'd. "He's smiling, positive and looking forward to the future."
Said Jenkins of the counseling: "At first you're kind of being forced to do it. Then you realize it's helping, it's working. You realize the program has a purpose and actually works. This is a program I truly believe will help save a lot of guys' lives."
Contact reporter Roger Phillips at (209) 546-8299 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @rphillipsblog.
This article is written by Roger Phillips from The Record, Stockton, Calif. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.