North Carolina’s first veterans treatment court graduated its first class on Wednesday as Gov. Pat McCrory pledged to expand the program to counties across the state.
The program helps veterans avoid a conviction by getting help for the underlying problem that landed them in hot water – post-traumatic stress disorder or alcoholism, for example. They’re paired with a fellow vet who meets with them weekly and keeps them on track to rehabilitation.
“We all thank God for this opportunity,” said Prentiss Mars, an Air Force veteran who was put in the program after a drunk driving charge. “If it had not been for this, I’d probably be in a jail cell, angry at the world, wondering what I did to deserve that.”
The veterans court was launched in Harnett County last year with a $66,696 grant from the Governor’s Crime Commission. It drew participants from as far away as Charlotte, and on Thursday, a similar program will launch in Cumberland County. Nearly 200 veterans courts operate across the country.
“We want to give our veterans a second chance and help them when they come back home – even if they get in trouble, because they’re dealing with things we can’t imagine,” McCrory said at Wednesday’s graduation.
The governor is putting an emphasis on veterans’ issues and says his drive comes from seeing family members scorned when they returned from the unpopular Vietnam War. Earlier this week, he launched NC4VETS, a new effort to coordinate services and publicize them through a 65-page resource guide.
Veterans will receive the guide at Division of Motor Vehicles offices and other locations. The guide is also online at NC4VETS.com and by phone at 844-NC4-VETS.
McCrory said he wants to make North Carolina more veteran friendly so military personnel will stick around after they leave the service. “I want them to stay in North Carolina,” he said, adding that the state’s population of 800,000 vets is attractive to businesses.
The veterans treatment court directs participants to job training programs, among other resources. But the Harnett graduates say the biggest help came from mentoring. The mentors quickly became friends whom the participants felt comfortable calling on anytime.
Vietnam War Army veteran George Williams said the man he mentored often came over to watch football games and swap war stories. Williams also heard his frustrations when Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and probation visits seemed like too much.
“A couple of times he wanted to give up,” Williams said. “I said, ‘look, it’s going to get better.’ All they need is a little guidance and some talking-to.”
Army Staff Sgt. Tommy Rieman – who joined the program after he attempted suicide by crashing his car into a tree – said he’d felt unprepared for life after the military. “You better figure it out quick because life’s not stopping for you,” he said.