The Free Press, Mankato, MN

July 12, 2013

Special court for veterans debuts

By Dan Nienaber

---- — MANKATO — It didn't take long for Danny Riggs to find trouble after he returned from Vietnam with a bullet wound in 1968.

No one cared much about war veterans in California at that time, but, just a year after the "Summer of Love," San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood had all the drugs a troubled, war-hardened young man could want for self medication. Within a year he was arrested for selling marijuana, convicted and sentenced to his first trip to prison.

There would be more of those trips. He was in prison a few times in California before moving to Minnesota to live with a pen pal. Then the regular trips to county jail started here before he was sent to prison in 2009 after pleading guilty to a felony charge of driving while intoxicated. He was released in May 2012 and returned to Vernon Center.

Riggs, 65, was charged with domestic assault and disorderly conduct the following October, but those charges were dismissed. Then he was arrested in April for driving after cancellation and being a danger to public safety.

This time his journey through the judicial system would be different.

Riggs is one of the first people in Blue Earth County to participate in a pilot project aimed at providing a problem-solving court for veterans facing criminal charges, something similar to the drug courts that have become popular throughout the state. The project recently became the state's second Veterans Court, with approval from the Judicial Council, and was awarded a $200,000 from the Minnesota Department of Human Services to help with funding.

One of its primary tools is simply making veterans aware of the services that are available to them through the Veterans Administration and other veterans organizations. Riggs said it took him 45 years to realize all of the programs that are available to help him stay out of trouble and be a productive member of the community.

"It gives me a chance to just find out where to go for help," he said. "This court holds me responsible and allows me to get back into the mainstream of life.

"Just knowing all the services that are available — all these people are here to help and I didn't have that in the past."

Several people, including Congressman Tim Walz, a veteran himself, attended one of the local Veterans Court hearings Friday to see what takes place. The court, which serves several counties in the area, is overseen by Blue Earth County District Court Judge Bradley Walker, a retired Marine Corps colonel.

Walz had words of encouragement for the six veterans who appeared before Walker Friday. He told them to get through the probation program and get on the right track because they have leadership skills that are needed in the community.

Although Walker has never seen combat, he was called from the reserves to active duty during Desert Storm. So he understands some of the challenges the veterans in his court are going through.

"When these folks talk about their experiences, I at least know what it's like to go through boot camp," the judge said. "I know what it's like to go through specialized military training and I know what it's like to be separated from your family and go through some of the issues that might cause."

Like Riggs, most of the veterans who get in trouble with law enforcement have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder or have brain injuries caused by combat, Walker said. The treatment for those problems is different than treating someone for substance abuse, although many of the veterans have chemical use issues, too.

The stress that's caused by going through combat is challenging enough, he said. But the real challenge for many veterans is returning home a different person and finding ways to relate to friends and family again.

"They're going through a life-changing event," Walker said. "Being able to cope with that while using chemicals or alcohol is challenging enough for anyone, much less someone on probation."

The state's first veterans court started in Hennepin County about three years ago. Deputy Commissioner Reggie Worlds of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs said that program has been a success. He has played a key role in getting the program started in Blue Earth County and was at Friday's hearing.

It's not uncommon for veterans returning from recent wars to have contact with police officers before going to a veterans affairs office for help, Worlds said. Having the court system become part of the solution by encouraging veterans charged with crimes to look for help, then showing them how to get access to those veterans programs, can stop a bad cycle from starting, he said.

"The people in court today, the majority of them have seen combat," Worlds said. "They are taught to be strong and they are taught not to show weakness. At some point, though, they lose that strength after they return home because they are no longer in the environment that sustained that."

That's when the self medication often starts and anger issues resulting from stress can come to the surface. What they don't realize is they've earned access to a variety of health programs, as well as programs that can help them get an education and find housing and employment, through their military service.

"Because they are taught to be strong, they're not going to look for help," Worlds said.

Assistant County Attorney Pat McDermott helped start the pilot veterans court program in Blue Earth County. He said there are thousands of veterans living in Blue Earth County and pointed out, along with Walker, that the vast majority of them never enter the judicial system.

But the veterans who do end up facing a judge deserve a shot at finding their way out quickly with some help, they said. That's the same treatment others in probation receive. It's just that circumstances can be different for veterans, especially those who have seen combat.

"We're just providing an access to various resources," Walker said. "At the same time we're holding these folks accountable for their actions through probation. It's not a free pass by any means. It's just a different probation model."