It’s called Veterans Court and is conducted by Brenda Stedham who is family court judge for Calhoun County.
Stedham told the Jacksonville Exchange Club at last week’s meeting that the Alabama Administration of Courts contacted her to see if she would be interested in starting the court.
“I began to think of all the cases I have seen as a lawyer and a judge where folks come out of military and have problems that need to be resolved,” Stedham said. “They will come out and have invisible wounds. Since 2001, almost 1.7 million men and women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Furthermore, they have been re-deployed more often and more rapidly than in any previous wars.
“They are coming out of with catastrophic injuries - some we can see and some we can’t see,” said Stedham. “These veterans not only have physical wounds and medical problems but also closed head injuries such as you would get in NFL. We don’t often recognize them because, just as a player says, ‘I’m fine,’ our military members also have a warrior attitude to be on front lines so they go right back in and have multiple undiagnosed concussions.”
Stedham said that people with closed head injuries, particularly those who have multiple undiagnosed concussions, lose their impulse control and judgment because of damage done to their brains. And when those veterans come out of the military they are put into VA facilities where treatment starts all over and they have to work through the bureaucracy. So they go through periods of time without the medical service they need.
“They come back into civilian life,” Stedham said. “They go out to a bar to be with old buddies. They have drink or two then somebody says something about their girlfriend or wife and, with no impulse control, they haul off and slug them. Now they have an assault charge.
“Those people are not criminals. They are people who have an underlying problem that needs to be dealt with. They may be on medications and get in a car and have an accident. Here again, it’s not so much the medication but underlying problems - posttraumatic stress disorder or a closed head injury or anxiety or depression or other problems.
“When you are on the front lines, you have to be on high alert every hour of every day for 12 to 15 months. That gives you a short fuse. And when you come home you are still on high alert.”
Veterans Court allows veterans who meet the requirements to go to court and plead guilty to criminal behavior. At that point they enter treatment for substance abuse or depression. They must get a job and keep it or get into school and stay. They must also stay out of trouble.
The program usually lasts a year. If the veteran completes the program with no problems, then his or her guilty plea is set aside so there is no conviction on his or her record.
“That’s really important for a lot of reasons,” Stedham said. “The least of which is that many veterans want to get into law enforcement or homeland security and they can’t if they have a conviction.
The program also provides a mentor for each veteran.
Elmer Wheatley and Greg Potts are co-mentor coordinators.
Potts, a retired colonel, is a former commander at the Anniston Army Depot.
“One of the first things you learn in the military is you’re not alone,” Potts said. “You have buddies, you are a member of a team, part of ship’s crew. You are a team and you depend upon each other.
“I am the son of a World War II B-24 crew member. My dad flew over 50 missions over southern and east Europe. I didn’t know my dad was in the war when I was young. I learned about it at night when my dad would scream and my mother would try to explain to us children the morning after as to what was going on.
“We see folks who are seeing things that hopefully none of us have to experience and all the while they are on continuous alert. Some soldiers in this community have been in Afghanistan for seven tours for up to 18 months.
“You come back and you are worn out. Life is different. Rather than thinking you can just blow it off and be a tough warrior and you can get through it, sometimes you need a little bit of help.
“You have a buddy when you were in combat, when you were deployed, so we’re going to have buddies now. Call them battle buddies, call them mentors. It’s a friend. Every vet going through the judge’s court will have someone who will be just a call away or just an address away.
“The point of the program is we don’t want you to be their attorney, doctor, therapist or accountant, we want to be their friend, somebody they can reach out to.” Potts said there are 17 mentors now who are willing to be battle buddies.
“Most folks who want to be mentors or battle buddies are veterans - men and women- who have been there and understand it. They will listen.”
Stedham said anyone interested in learning more about the program should call Nancy Vernon, who is court coordinator. She can be reached at 256-225-5402.