As many spend this Memorial Day weekend reflecting on the lives lost to the armed forces, North Carolina officials are touting a specialized court program for troubled veterans as a life-saver.
Gov. Pat McCrory is scheduled to be on “CBS Sunday Morning,” which airs from 9 to 10:30 a.m., to discuss the state’s veterans treatment courts, which provide an alternative to more traditional punishment for veterans whose criminal actions appear to stem from the stresses of war.
A $66,696 grant from the Governor’s Crime Commission funded the state’s first such court in Harnett County in 2013; it graduated its first class last year. A second veterans court opened in Fayetteville in November. In February, McCrory said two more would be established but did not say where. However, judges in Durham, which is home to the Triangle’s only VA Medical Center, have been working to bring one to the county. Buncombe County has been exploring the idea, too. The state is home to about 800,000 veterans.
There are nearly 200 such courts across the country. They are tailored to military veterans whose struggles to cope with haunting war experiences sometimes plunge them into downward spirals that land them in criminal court over non-violent, low-level offenses.
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Albert Corbett Jr., a newly retired Harnett County district court judge who presided over the first ceremony for graduates of the treatment program, said it “has been a great success so far.”
“One of the great things is how they are paired up with a mentor,” Corbett said.
There are about 10,900 veterans in Harnett County but as the first veterans treatment court in the state, Corbett and others involved in the program worked with veterans from other counties.
Former Army Staff Sgt. Tommy Rieman was one of them.
Rieman, an Iraq war veteran who received the Silver Star and Purple Heart, was touring the country as a public face for Salute The Troops campaign. There was an action figure modeled after him and his image was part of an Xbox 360 military game. But he was also self-medicating with alcohol and prescription drugs to try to escape the nightmares that haunted him.
On Sept. 1, 2013, after a night of heavy drinking, Rieman wrote a goodbye note to his children at his Charlotte home and drove his truck into a tree.
He was charged with driving while impaired.
Rieman checked himself into a 14-day Veterans Affairs program and attempted to get sober, but once out was unable to break free from the cycle of substance abuse.
A friend then pushed him toward a longer treatment program and once he got out, Harnett County court officials reached out to him.
At Rieman’s graduation, Corbett stepped down from the bench to salute him and each of the other veterans who had made it through the program.
The salute, Corbett said, is a sign of respect and appreciation for the service the veterans provided.
Court officials and others also refer to the veterans in the progam by their rank and last name, in part, to instill a sense of the military culture that was so much a part of their lives before they became civilians again.
“We’re showing them the respect they are entitled to,” Corbett said.
Getting through the program, which is coordinated by Ret. Lt. Col. Mark Teachey, takes strength and perseverance, court officials say.
Judge Jackie Lee, who took over the veterans treatment court after Corbett retired, said no one in the second-chance program is getting off lightly.
There are weekly meetings with the judge, prosecutor, mentor and others.
There is testing for substance abuse and sanctions imposed for people who make missteps along the path to a different lifestyle.
Lee assigned one veteran who tested positive for drugs to write an essay on marijuana and what it does to the body.
Sometimes the judge orders what they call “a quick-dip” in jail, imprisoning a participant for 24 to 48 hours with hopes that time on the inside will help them right themselves on the outside.
“The beauty of our Veterans Treatment Court is how so many people out of the court system are part of a team,” Lee said.
Gov. Pat McCrory and former Army Staff Sgt. Tommy Rieman are scheduled to be on “CBS Sunday Morning.” The program airs from 9 to 10:30 a.m. locally on WRAL.