Veterans Court Provides Second Chance - Northport VA Medical Center
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Northport VA Medical Center

 

Veterans Court Provides Second Chance

Grace Mehl, retired U.S. Navy and associate member of the Green Jackets, chats with Hon. John. J. Toomey, Veterans Court presiding judge, following a recent Veterans Court graduation.

Grace Mehl, retired U.S. Navy and associate member of the Green Jackets, chats with Hon. John. J. Toomey, Veterans Court presiding judge, following a recent Veterans Court graduation.

By Todd Goodman
Monday, April 13, 2015

The largest graduation ceremony of the Suffolk County Veterans Court took place March 31, 2015, in the Central Jury Room of the Cohalan Court Complex, Central Islip, N.Y. The class featured 24 graduates, two of which were the first women to complete the program. 

Suffolk County Veterans Court has graduated 70 veterans since its 2011 inception. It’s designed to give veterans a second chance by avoiding incarceration. If the program is completed, veterans may earn reductions or even have a dismissal of charges altogether, said Hon. John J. Toomey, Veterans Court presiding judge and Vietnam veteran. For an area like Nassau and Suffolk County, home to the most veterans per capita in the state, this program offers many chances to give veterans a different option.
For one graduate, that option may have been a life saver. Post-military life was a hard adjustment and family members wondered what was wrong; where had the upbeat, positive personality gone?
“I wanted to get locked up,” the veteran said. “I wanted to commit suicide. It’s because of Veterans Court that I can stand here today.”Eric Bruno, Veteran Justice Outreach coordinator at the Northport Veteran Affairs Medical Center, works closely with the program and monitors veteran compliance.
“A large part of my job is to engage with the veterans to encourage them to try something they may have been reluctant to do,” said Bruno. “It’s definitely a balancing act. The hope is that if you put a person in position to address the underlying issues of a problem, they will return to being a healthy, productive member of society, which may lower the rate of recidivism.”
Defense attorneys for veterans may request Veteran Court for their clients, but eligibility is determined by the district attorney, who reviews each submitted case. Most cases involve mental illness and substance abuse. Time of treatment varies from county to county, but Suffolk County mandates 18 months of treatment for a felony and 12 months of treatment for a misdemeanor. 
“I know it’s a tough program, but it’s a worthwhile program,” said Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas J. Spota to the graduates. “We certainly don’t condone the behavior that brought you here, but for you all who have risked your lives for us, I say we should take a chance on you.”
Along with the arduous treatment, veterans receive motivation, comfort, and inspiration from those who’ve walked in their shoes, who know how difficult returning from combat can be – the mentors known as the “Green Jackets,” members of the Suffolk County Vietnam Veterans of America (Chapter 11). 
“These mentors weren’t taught,” said Toomey. “There were no classes. They started this at the ground level. They talk the talk and walk the walk. We do take care of our veterans. All you have to do is look at the Green Jackets.”
These Vietnam veteran mentors are with the program’s veterans from beginning to end. And their impact on these men and women is undeniable. 
“We’re sounding boards, advisors, and mentors,” said Green Jacket Grace Mehl, retired U.S. Navy commander and associate member of the Green Jackets. “We come every two weeks when the court meets, introduce ourselves and let them know that we are here for them throughout this process. We understand their lives in the military, their PTSD, and adjustment issues.”
The Green Jackets have 10 mentors covering each service branch and try to pair the mentor and veteran accordingly.
“The advantage of having the mentors we have is that we can assign service to service mentors,” said Green Jacket Frank D’Aversa, a retired U.S. Navy lieutenant. We have five combat wounded Vietnam guys. I normally assign heavy combat guys with a heavy combat Afghanistan/Iraq vet. It helps them relate to one another.” 
Hon. Glenn A. Murphy, Suffolk County District Court, who said he was humbled to be in the presence of these graduates, agreed.
“We as civilians, we don’t get it,” he said. “Without the Green Jackets, it doesn’t work.”
Mentorship certainly hasn’t gone unappreciated by these graduates, many of whom credited the Green Jackets upon completing the program. 
“Grace Mehl touched me,” said one graduate. “She touched my heart and really helped change my life. She is really compassionate. She kept calling and checking in on me, which is something I’m not used to having in my life. I would highly recommend her to anyone going through Veterans Court.”
Mehl, who did not serve in Vietnam, received this opportunity when a female victim of sexual assault requested a female mentor during Veterans Court. D’Aversa, who already had met Mehl, knew just whom to call.
“Grace had 400 Marines and 300 Sailors under her command, so she is well-equipped to mentor both men and women,” said D’Aversa. 
The Green Jackets have been at every court meeting since the program’s inception. 
 “It’s rewarding to be able to assist veterans through their difficult times coming home from war,” he said. “The motto of our local chapter is, ‘Vets helping vets.’”

The largest graduation ceremony of the Suffolk County Veterans Court took place March 31, 2015, in the Central Jury Room of the Cohalan Court Complex, Central Islip, N.Y. The class featured 24 graduates, two of which were the first women to complete the program. 

Suffolk County Veterans Court has graduated 70 veterans since its 2011 inception. It’s designed to give veterans a second chance by avoiding incarceration. If the program is completed, veterans may earn reductions or even have a dismissal of charges altogether, said Hon. John J. Toomey, Veterans Court presiding judge and Vietnam veteran. For an area like Nassau and Suffolk County, home to the most veterans per capita in the state, this program offers many chances to give veterans a different option.

For one graduate, that option may have been a life saver. Post-military life was a hard adjustment and family members wondered what was wrong; where had the upbeat, positive personality gone?

“I wanted to get locked up,” the veteran said. “I wanted to commit suicide. It’s because of Veterans Court that I can stand here today.”Eric Bruno, Veteran Justice Outreach coordinator at the Northport Veteran Affairs Medical Center, works closely with the program and monitors veteran compliance.

“A large part of my job is to engage with the veterans to encourage them to try something they may have been reluctant to do,” said Bruno. “It’s definitely a balancing act. The hope is that if you put a person in position to address the underlying issues of a problem, they will return to being a healthy, productive member of society, which may lower the rate of recidivism.”

Defense attorneys for veterans may request Veteran Court for their clients, but eligibility is determined by the district attorney, who reviews each submitted case. Most cases involve mental illness and substance abuse. Time of treatment varies from county to county, but Suffolk County mandates 18 months of treatment for a felony and 12 months of treatment for a misdemeanor. 

“I know it’s a tough program, but it’s a worthwhile program,” said Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas J. Spota to the graduates. “We certainly don’t condone the behavior that brought you here, but for you all who have risked your lives for us, I say we should take a chance on you.”

Along with the arduous treatment, veterans receive motivation, comfort, and inspiration from those who’ve walked in their shoes, who know how difficult returning from combat can be – the mentors known as the “Green Jackets,” members of the Suffolk County Vietnam Veterans of America (Chapter 11). 

“These mentors weren’t taught,” said Toomey. “There were no classes. They started this at the ground level. They talk the talk and walk the walk. We do take care of our veterans. All you have to do is look at the Green Jackets.”

These Vietnam veteran mentors are with the program’s veterans from beginning to end. And their impact on these men and women is undeniable. 

“We’re sounding boards, advisors, and mentors,” said Green Jacket Grace Mehl, retired U.S. Navy commander and associate member of the Green Jackets. “We come every two weeks when the court meets, introduce ourselves and let them know that we are here for them throughout this process. We understand their lives in the military, their PTSD, and adjustment issues.”

The Green Jackets have 10 mentors covering each service branch and try to pair the mentor and veteran accordingly.

“The advantage of having the mentors we have is that we can assign service to service mentors,” said Green Jacket Frank D’Aversa, a retired U.S. Navy lieutenant. We have five combat wounded Vietnam guys. I normally assign heavy combat guys with a heavy combat Afghanistan/Iraq vet. It helps them relate to one another.” 

Hon. Glenn A. Murphy, Suffolk County District Court, who said he was humbled to be in the presence of these graduates, agreed.

“We as civilians, we don’t get it,” he said. “Without the Green Jackets, it doesn’t work.”

Mentorship certainly hasn’t gone unappreciated by these graduates, many of whom credited the Green Jackets upon completing the program. 

“Grace Mehl touched me,” said one graduate. “She touched my heart and really helped change my life. She is really compassionate. She kept calling and checking in on me, which is something I’m not used to having in my life. I would highly recommend her to anyone going through Veterans Court.”

Mehl, who did not serve in Vietnam, received this opportunity when a female victim of sexual assault requested a female mentor during Veterans Court. D’Aversa, who already had met Mehl, knew just whom to call.

“Grace had 400 Marines and 300 Sailors under her command, so she is well-equipped to mentor both men and women,” said D’Aversa. 

The Green Jackets have been at every court meeting since the program’s inception. 

 “It’s rewarding to be able to assist veterans through their difficult times coming home from war,” he said. “The motto of our local chapter is, ‘Vets helping vets.’”

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