Courtroom 1E is like a big, open confessional.
“This is almost like the truth court,” said Marshall Williams, a retired Army sergeant major who decided to scrap all the platitudes he’d planned to say in that Northern Virginia courtroom last week and instead tell the truth.
The truths told there in Fairfax County District Court are usually personal and embarrassing. They include the truth about dodging gunfire, watching people die, dousing the nightmares with drugs or alcohol, trying to get out of bed every day when you’re a U.S. military veteran fighting the physical and mental toll of your service.
This truth court is an experiment — Fairfax’s first Veterans Treatment Court program.
“This program is a merciful one,” explained Judge Michael J. Lindner. It’s what the men and women who “sacrificed everything for every one of us deserve.”
It’s a way to help vets who land in court stop a downward spiral that can lead to jail or even suicide. About 22 a day, statistics say.
There are about 76 military veterans behind bars in Fairfax on any given day. And Penney S. Azcarate, a military veteran and Fairfax County Circuit Court judge, decided that many don’t have to be there.
Most of them suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or a traumatic brain injury. They are trying to muscle through it alone — and failing.
So now, when veterans appear in court on a nonviolent charge that involves substance abuse and mental health, they have the chance to go through a treatment program instead of going to jail. There are about 200 similar programs across the country, and most of the vets who graduate from them are thriving.
“This docket is no joke,” Azcarate explained.
The veterans have to plead guilty and sign on to an intense program of classes, community service, treatment, therapy and frequent court visits. They are assigned veterans who act as volunteer mentors.
Sometimes, Robert Davis, a 72-year-old Navy veteran of the Vietnam War explained, they have to get a little tough and hector them.
“My father was a World War I veteran. Alcohol killed him,” Davis said. “I can’t see that happen again.”
At the 2 p.m. session on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, the volunteers in their matching blue shirts stood beside each of their charges as the vets stepped to the lectern and checked in. They explained their progress, some kvetched a little, they laid out a plan.
The judges — Lindner and Azcarate — offered words of encouragement, nodded and smiled like therapists. Some homework was assigned. And when each veteran was done being questioned, and he exhaled, the courtroom erupted in applause.
At the back of the courtroom, a veteran quietly shared a confession with me.
“I didn’t want to do this, at all,” said the Marine Corps veteran, who did two deployments to Afghanistan. He was never in trouble with the law before his time in the military. Now he’s facing his third DUI. “I was looking at serious jail time, you know?”
The veteran, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so that his daughter doesn’t read about him, had to tell the judge about his progress with his drinking, about getting treatment for PTSD, about his will to get up and live that regular, suburban life every morning.
“All these people spilling their guts? That wasn’t for me,” he said.
He’s coming around.
“It’s opening my eyes, though,” he said. “I’m starting to think I do probably have, you know, PTSD.”
If he hadn’t met the judge’s requirements that week? He could go back to jail.
And if he does meet all the requirements and graduates?
I’ll let Steven Daniel tell you what happens then.
“I’ve got a second chance at life,” said the 57-year-old former paratrooper who on Friday celebrated being one of the program’s first two graduates. “I lost about 20 years. But now I have the chance to get some of that back. I got back in touch with my son. Found out I’ve got grandkids.”
The courtroom was packed Friday for Daniel’s final appearance, his last confessional.
Remember Williams? He wasn’t in trouble. The senior enlisted adviser to the secretary of defense was there to give an uplifting address at the graduation. Then he decided to offer a confession of his own.
Last year, his wife begged him to be tested to find out if he had PTSD.
He didn’t think he did but finally made an appointment.
The doctor told him that if PTSD were football, his brain was the Super Bowl.
All along, Williams thought what he was doing was normal.
It’s normal, he figured, to jump up and scan the perimeter every time a car passed his house.
It’s totally normal, he thought, that his son won’t go near his face when he’s sleeping, fearing how he’ll react if he’s accidently awakened. Or to make everyone in the family freeze in place while he does a full scan of the house if a single object is moved just an inch.
“So now,” he said, “I’m always telling people: Seek treatment. Seek treatment. Seek treatment.”
Now that we have honored our war dead on Memorial Day, we can honor the living by helping our veterans get the help they need.
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