Montana VA Health Care System
Veterans Treatment Court
By Patrick Hutchison
Tuesday, August 28, 2018The Eighth Judicial District Court in Great Falls, Mont. is called to attention by a member of the Marine Corps League. The gallery is still—each person standing for the majesty of the Colors as they are paraded by the Marine Corps League Color Guard preceding the Veteran Treatment Court.
For the last five years, a multi-disciplined group around 20 strong meets an hour prior to Veterans Treatment Court. There are representatives from the Montana VA Health Care System, two independent counselors, Vet Center counselors and over a dozen mentors who guide Veterans through five phases of treatment. Judge Gregory Pinski sits at the head of the large table while Andrea Fisher, Veterans Treatment Court Coordinator, reviews each Veteran’s weekly task sheet. Without this group, Veterans in the treatment court would be in prison. Instead, they all have a second chance.
“I guarantee Veterans four things: sobriety, stability for mental health issues, a job, and a place to live,” says Judge Pinski.
Back in the courtroom, Fisher sings the Star-Spangled Banner. The Colors are then posted, and Judge Pinski addresses the room. It’s sad news. A Veteran and graduate of the treatment court is battling a crippling illness. The courtroom offers prayers. When Joe, a mentor for the court, relates more news of mentors’ and families’ lives, it becomes clear that this is not a court gallery of strangers but rather a community.
Coy Anderson is a builder, an inventor, a Veteran and now stands in front of the courtroom as the forty-fourth graduate of the Veterans Treatment Court. Anderson’s mentor tells the courtroom gallery of Anderson’s mind and ambition. It is these two attributes Anderson’s mentor credits to Anderson’s success in treatment. The two hug. With candor and a quiver, Anderson says, “I never thought I’d be here today.”
“The first eight hours are the hardest,” says Anthony Powers, the forty-fifth graduate of the Veterans Treatment Court.
Anderson and Powers have now gone through five phases, the first between 60 to 90 days and each phase following between 10 to 14 months. Each week, Fisher gives Veterans in treatment court a task sheet. The task sheets are not suggestions. The sheets are court orders requiring Veterans in treatment to take drug and alcohol tests, participate in chemical dependency treatment, attend mental health treatment, perform community services and participate in community support groups.
“The goal is to facilitate recovery, improve lifestyle and end Veterans’ cyclical contact with the criminal justice system,” explains Jackie Merritt, Veterans Justice Outreach Social Worker for the Montana VA.
It works. According to Powers, it is the strictness yet fairness of the court that has led to his graduation. Judge Pinski notices its effect on Powers as a sea change. Powers is a man of decorated service in the U.S. Army. While he doesn’t wear his numerous medals, Powers now wears a smile that he did not have when he started. For his part, Powers is pragmatic, quickly moving from the compliments paid to him for his accomplishments to the literal and figurative work ahead—all with his newfound smile.
Both Anderson and Powers return to the gallery. Phase certificates are handed out to Veterans moving forward in treatment. Judge Pinski shakes each Veterans’ hand. Before the court is adjourned, new mentors are sworn in. This act, as with the rest of the preceding, is celebratory yet earnest in its mission.
“I will strive to re-integrate my Veteran … and leave no Veteran behind.”