Mt. Vernon Register-News

Opinion

December 4, 2013

Program helps vets battle the darkness

WASHINGTON — Former Marine Cpl. Eric Gonzales doesn’t remember much about the night last year he led police in Orange County, Calif., on a high-speed, 26-minute chase that ended when he threw his truck into reverse and crashed into the patrol car behind him.

When he finally took his foot off the gas, he was handcuffed and later charged with DUI, evading arrest, assault on a police officer and more.

Still in the Marine Corps at the time, and living at Camp Pendleton, Gonzales’ first court appearance was brief; he argued with the judge and got himself ejected.

But then he finally listened to his counsel: “My lawyer recommended I go to veterans court” — one of a growing number of such programs that oversee criminal cases involving military veterans who were arrested at least partly because of an addiction or mental illness, most commonly depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

An average of 22 military veterans commit suicide every day in this country, perhaps the best measure of the mental health crisis among veterans. And 130 special courts for veterans in 40 states are tackling that problem.

The first one was started in Buffalo in 2008, modeled on the drug courts that have significantly reduced recidivism rates by substituting treatment and other support programs for incarceration.

Gonzales, who served in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010, was facing a nine-year prison sentence, so he was eager to opt for oversight from Judge Wendy Lindley’s veterans court in Orange County. He “graduated” from the program in September.

On Monday, the 23-year-old stepped up to a podium in a ballroom at a Washington hotel and addressed a crowd of about 900 as the first speaker at the first national training conference for those who work in such courts.

Gonzales, a high school sports star from San Bernardino, had a college scholarship but persuaded his parents to sign the waiver that let him enlist at 17: “I joined the greatest fighting force I could — the United States Marine Corps!” he said, to a big round of hoo-rahs from Marines in the crowd.

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