Dressed in a dark suit and red tie, a young Marine stood before Judge David Garcia for a round of applause in the Criminal Court No. 3 courtroom Wednesday afternoon.
The man, whose identity is protected under confidentially agreements, had just completed the Denton County Veterans Court Treatment Program, making him the program’s first graduate.
The veterans court program, approved by Denton County commissioners in 2009, is a collaborative process between the court, defense counsel and prosecutors to treat combat-related mental health conditions that lead to criminal behavior.
Once a veteran graduates from the program, the Denton County District Attorney’s Office will wipe his or her criminal record clean.
Forrest Beadle, veterans court prosecutor with the DA’s office, said the vast majority of cases involve misdemeanor convictions. The court will consider some felony cases, but those convicted of sex offenses, crimes against children, felony driving while intoxicated charges, intoxication assault, all aggravated violent offenses and manslaughter cases are excluded.
The court wants to provide a second chance for veterans; however, the program has a tedious screening process.
Since 2010, an estimated 50 veterans have applied. Four currently are enrolled, and the court looks to have a dozen participants by the end of the year.
“It’s a working process, and we have made great strides in the past two months detailing what we need to do in order to better shape the program,” Beadle said.
The “treatment team,” comprising 13 volunteers, said the court is closed once a month during veterans meetings for confidentiality purposes because the veterans involved are undergoing treatment.
During the treatment meetings — briefings before Garcia on the participant’s status — the court goes over ways to make the program stronger and how to build community partnerships.
“During a recent meeting, we were discussing the demographics of the higher rate of suicide related to PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and how to help overcome this with our vets,” Beadle said.
The program has two “battle buddies” — mentors whom enrolled veterans can go to for anything at any time. Officials said the battle buddies are veterans themselves and conversations between the participant and mentor are “strictly confidential” unless the veteran mentions doing bodily harm to himself or another person.
Beadle, a U.S. Army veteran, said one of his favorite quotes is “It takes strength and courage of a warrior to ask for help.”
“They have to seek help,” he said. “Most that do are active in seeking counseling.”
The first graduate is a great example of someone wanting to do better in life, Beadle said.
The young veteran faced two charges of driving while intoxicated. He picked up the second charge within 90 days of his first. Officials with the district attorney’s office said the Denton County Probation Department had been monitoring him on pre-trial ignition interlock for more than a year before he entered veterans court in November 2012 and didn’t detect another drinking violation.
“[He is] a truly stellar veteran and Marine,” Beadle said.
During the ceremony, Garcia told the court’s first graduate that he had come a long way in a short amount of time.
As Garcia handed him a graduation coin — a reminder of the uphill battle he went through to clear his record — he told the young Marine he makes the team proud to put time into the program to see success stories such as his.
“I’m excited we finally have a program with resources to help,” said Joseph Zellmer, a veterans court defense attorney and member of the treatment team. “This is great.”
MEGAN GRAY can be reached at 940-566-6885 and via Twitter at @MGrayNews.