Traci Rosenbaum Great Falls Tribune
Published 9:00 AM EST Nov 14, 2018
The sound of bagpipes echoed off the walls of the Montana Air National Guard hangar, a sharp contrast to the silence of the looming C-130 towering in the background as over 50 veterans celebrated the 5th anniversary of the Montana Eighth Judicial District Veterans Treatment Court Tuesday in Great Falls.
Judge Greg Pinski, along with many other professionals and community supporters, founded the court in 2013 to help local veterans address issues that have led them to commit crimes and promote their sobriety, mental health and social well-being.
Pinski was approached by longtime veterans’ advocate Rodger McConnell, who told him point-blank that Great Falls needed a veterans treatment court.
McConnell had fought his own battles, first in Vietnam against enemies in war, and then at home against alcohol and undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder.
It was two days after Pinski was sworn in that McConnell asked if he was ready to go to work.
“Rodger understood better than anyone what veterans needed in our community,” Pinski said. “I’d just been sworn in, and it became my mission and Rodger’s mission to make this court a reality.”
McConnell passed away in 2016, but the legacy he began lives on.
In five years, Veterans Court has served 108 veterans, has a 91 percent completion rate and thus far has seen all its graduates still housed and employed at 12 months after completing the program.
The program has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in jail costs, reduced recidivism and encouraged hundreds of hours of volunteer service in its participants.
Pinksi runs Veterans Court based on two principles. First, he believes that courts don’t only exist to dispense justice – they exist to make the community a better, safer place.
“The second principle,” he said, “is that we should lock people up that we’re afraid of, not the people that we’re disappointed in.”
Gov. Steve Bullock and Mayor Bob Kelly were on hand at Tuesday’s ceremony, each speaking about the importance of helping the people who have given so much for their country.
“We owe an enormous debt to the men and women who have served our nation in uniform,” Bullock said. “Yet many of our veterans face a long and difficult road with transitioning back to civilian life.”
Bullock cited the statistics that 1 in 5 veterans struggle with mental health challenges and 1 in 6 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have substance abuse issues. Through Veterans Court, participants can get help with both of these problems.
“Beyond just helping our veterans in their day to day lives, the court is also helping to keep families together,” Bullock said. “Most importantly it’s also saving lives.”
“This has given you a second chance, but again, ‘given’ isn’t the right word,” he continued. “Indeed, you’re earning that chance. When offenders get a chance to avoid prison by signing up for the Vets Court, they agree to nothing less than changing their lives.”
Mayor Kelly thanked the community who supported the participants in Veterans Court and recalled how he first got involved in the program.
“When I was elected mayor of Great Falls three years ago, my first call that I got was from a World War II Navy veteran – my father,” he recalled. “The second call I got…was from Judge Pinski,”
Montana Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester sent representatives to express their support and congratulations, but it was the personal stories of four graduates that truly illuminated the program’s success.
Richard Cassels: “The only thing that didn’t change about me is my shoe size”
Retired U.S. Marine Corps veteran Richard Cassels talked about being resistive, combative and ungrateful when he began in Vet Court.
“I didn’t want help. I didn’t want to change my life I was frustrated with society,” he said. “I felt forsaken by God, my country and my fellow man, and I didn’t want to give anything back because I didn’t feel like I was getting anything.”
Whether by accident or by design, Cassels, along with one other man, ended up in a group together that dealt with trauma. He described how the counselor set the syllabus aside and spent the next seven weeks addressing the grief both men had over the recent loss of their children.
Cassels went back to Pinski to ask if he could continue treatment with the next group of incoming vets.
“That did not happen,” Cassels said. “Instead, he went out and developed and built this treatment team, a specialized group just for me and that individual, and then eventually a third. What (Pinski) doesn’t have, he will get. That time was when my respect out of fear turned into my respect out of love.”
Cassels, who is about to become the program’s newest graduate, referred back to the numbers of the people helped by Vet Court. Looking at Pinski, he said, “No disrespect, but those numbers are wrong.”
When you add family members, friends, neighbors and community members helped, Cassels said the numbers should be multiplied by at least six for each person who participates in Vet Court.
Dave Belcher: “(Love) is something that I lost, and to gain that back is living”
Cassels isn’t the only one who talked about love Tuesday. U.S. Army veteran Dave Belcher was the first-ever graduate of Vet Court, and he began by talking about how anger left no room in his life for anything else.
“Me being a soldier, I was angry,” he said. “I didn’t like love, so all the people who loved me, I pushed them away…I became a very lonely man.”
When Belcher started doing drugs, he got high by himself. At one point, he almost killed the woman he loved and was headed to prison for a nine-year sentence.
“It was the saddest day of my life,” he recalled. “To tell you the truth, I wanted to go to prison. I wanted to go because I felt like I needed to be in prison. I needed to be locked up. I wanted to die.”
The morning he was supposed to go to prison, Belcher was instead told that he was going to see Judge Pinski to get help through Vet Court. He didn’t think he deserved it.
But dealing with the professionals involved in the program reminded Belcher of the man he used to be. The man he wanted to be again.
“The saddest thing is to put somebody aside that loves you. Don’t ever do that. It’s the worst thing that can ever happen to anybody,” he said. “Life is full of love, and people who are in the military, we love more than others. That’s why we went overseas to fight.”
Knowing that he had a group of people who cared about him is what gave Belcher back his love and let him set aside his anger, and he encouraged everyone to help vets with substance abuse issues instead of putting them aside.
John Dailey: “This is our black plague”
A retired member of the U.S. Coast Guard, John Dailey had no idea what to say when he was asked to speak at Tuesday’s ceremony. Pinski’s advice was for him to speak from the heart.
“Then I really got choked up,” he said. “Because every time I talk about Veterans Court, it’s really hard for me not to get emotional.”
It was 2012 when Dailey first got in trouble with the law. He was married with a 12-year-old son.
“In my mind, I thought that I was going to be charged, go to a state-run treatment program, go to pre-release and I should be back home in 9 months,” he said.
It was more than five years later when Dailey finally graduated from Vets Court and got out of the legal system after spending two years in state prison and two years in federal prison.
Dailey was diagnosed with some mental health and PTSD issues, but the support group he gained and the ongoing treatment are helping him cope.
“I feel blessed today,” he said. “I think all of us would be hard-pressed to find that substance abuse hasn’t touched our family or some family that we know in some shape or form. It’s an epidemic.”
Dailey credited programs such as Veterans Court with paving the way to make a real difference in the world for future generations.
Marv Harris: “I knew something wasn’t right”
Marv Harris and Judge Pinski’s relationship goes back to when Pinski was a paper delivery boy. Little did Harris know that the daily news isn’t all he’d receive from Pinski.
A vet with the U.S. Army, Harris signed up for the draft as a young man. His first day in Vietnam was the morning the Tet Offensive began. Harris was a combat medic, and the staggering casualties from that time shaped the rest of his life.
Harris quietly did his job and came home, gaining his medical license and setting up a practice in Great Falls. To the untrained eye, it may have seemed like he was doing just fine.
“I felt alone and empty,” Harris said. “My wife could no longer take the problems I was having. She left. My son left. My daughter was estranged.”
It took a long time for Harris to discover that he was suffering from PTSD and bipolar disorder, and his treatment was off-again, on-again.
On a day when he was feeling particularly disoriented, he ran a red light in Great Falls and caused a crash. Confused, he left the scene on foot. Passing a rental car agency, he decided to go inside. There was no one at the desk, so he took a set of keys, took a car and drove home.
When the police knocked on his door, Harris was still not coherent. He was arrested and charged with felony theft, and event he called “one of the best things that ever happened to me” because it led him to participate in Vet Court.
In 2017, Harris reunited with his daughter. This year will be the second Thanksgiving he’s spent with her and his four grandchildren.
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