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A 'fair shake' for veterans.

Byline: Karen McCowan The Register-Guard

In an advance Memorial Day salute, the Lane County Circuit Court on Tuesday held a grand opening of sorts for its fledgling Veterans Treatment Court.

The court launched quietly last year as a special division of the county's drug court. That 18-year-old program allows adult defendants to win dismissal of drug- or alcohol-related criminal charges by demonstrating sustained sobriety and completing a yearlong treatment program while closely supervised by a judge. The veterans court already has one graduate, and eight other veterans are now participating.

Judge Cynthia Carlson, who presides over both courts, said she and treatment court coordinator Sheyne Benedict decided to create the separate court after noticing a growing number of veterans coming into drug court.

"We decided to put them on their own docket so they're not mixed in with all the other folks," the judge told a courtroom packed with veterans, military officials and spectators. "It's important to recognize that they sometimes have additional treatment needs, particularly if they deployed to combat locations overseas. They can come back with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and military sexual trauma, as well as having substance abuse problems."

Carlson added that those additional needs can be met using existing resources available through the federal Veterans Affairs office and its partner organizations. The VA's Roseburg office, for instance, sends Justice Outreach Officer Susan Harrison to each veterans court session.

"It's a win-win-win situation," said Harrison, a licensed clinical social worker who tries to ensure that each veteran defendant gets the specialized services "they've earned the right to access" at no cost to Lane County.

That means the new court required no additional spending, Carlson said - an important point as Lane County prepares to close jail beds and cut sheriff's patrols, prosecutors and other public safety services due to lack of funds.

The first veterans court was established in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008. Nearly 90 are now operating across the country, Carlson said. She and other local drug court officials attended a training session on the concept last year while attending a mandatory annual conference for officials of courts receiving grants to operate drug courts.

The Lane County veterans court is the second in Oregon, she said, and benefited from mentoring by the state's first such court in Klamath County.

Besides speeches celebrating the new local service, the Tuesday event included an actual court session, with Carlson hearing progress reports from several current participants.

"I always know when I have military in front of me because they assume their positions," the judge said as she greeted Joshua Boeh land, an Oregon Army National Guard veteran who served in the Iraq War.

Boehland stood humbly with his hands clasped behind his back in the military "at ease" position even as those in the courtroom applauded in appreciation of his service.

Carlson congratulated Boehland on passing a recent, random drug test, and praised him for getting trained to operate a metal detector. The Sweet Home native has a 100 percent disability rating, she explained. For such veterans, finding ways to socialize with others and occupy their time in positive activities is key to "keep from straying back into old habits."

Lane County's chief deputy district attorney, Patty Perlow, and its public defender services director, Greg Hazarabedian, also praised the new court Tuesday.

Perlow began by thanking "all the veterans in the room" for their military service, saying, "The country owes you a huge debt." She said she is a huge fan of the new court.

"With some time and some additional funding, we could expand into other areas beyond substance abuse, such as public order and domestic violence offenses," she said.

Hazarabedian noted that Americans may disagree about political decisions regarding war, but "there should be no arguments about how we treat returning veterans. ... I think that veterans court is patriotism."

None of the veteran defendants wanted to be interviewed Tuesday. But Darcy Woodke, a military family assistance contractor with the Oregon National Guard, said she is hearing from service members and their families that the court is appreciated.

"What I hear is that PTSD and associated issues with combat are misunderstood, and the veterans court will give these guys a fair shake." she said.
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Title Annotation:Local News
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:May 23, 2012
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