Second chance for troubled veterans

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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) -- Court is usually about punishment. But 20-years ago, Douglas County flipped that idea and became the first in Nebraska to offer a problem-solving Drug Court. It helps those who were arrested for non-violent drug and alcohol crimes. Graduates would see their felony charges dismissed. We are now a year into a similar program in Douglas County – only this one targets a specific population – veterans.

"I joined the Marines because I was going to be the biggest and the baddest,” said Justin Polland. He graduated from artillery school in 2004 – and posed in front of a howitzer with his gun crew. "A lot of issues I had bubbling and had pushed aside. Out of sight – out of mind. But those boxes eventually will go off and you'll have to face the music."

His ticking time bomb exploded in 2016. The Omaha marine would remember Memorial Day for a different reason. "I was arrested around Memorial Day due to a bar fight. I spent six months and one day in Douglas County jail."

"When I first met Justin almost a year ago, he was in an orange jumpsuit,” said volunteer mentor Howard Ball. “He was shackled around his wrists and ankles. He was in court."

Eventually, Justin Polland turned in his county-issued jumpsuit for a shirt and tie.

"The public needs to know what this program can do for those involved in it,” said Douglas County District Court Judge Mark Ashford.

Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder – the marine would be the first one to take part in something new to Nebraska -- a treatment court specifically for veterans.

"This program is not only giving me an opportunity to overcome a massive mistake in judgment, but also address the issues that may have led me to it,” said Polland.

"I'm over a year sober now,” said veteran Kueth Deluony. “The last time I had a drink was June 23, 2016, when I got that last DUI."

It was his fourth drunk driving arrest. "What would have happened that night?” he asked. “I could have killed someone else or myself. Luckily no one died."

As a sophomore at Wayne State preparing for a pharmacy career, Deluony felt he had a responsibility to pay back the country who took in his family from a refugee camp in 1999. Civil war in Sudan had forced them to escape. "Each night we don't have any food. We don't know what's going to happen the next day. By coming to America, I can do whatever I want to do because I have opportunity."

Thinking he could always go back to college, Kueth Deluony enlisted in the U.S. Army.

After serving a 16-month tour in Iraq, he came home to Omaha. But the Post Traumatic Stress of war was too much to handle. "With alcohol, I was self-medicating myself because I couldn't get any sleep. My culture is that if you ask for help – you are weak. You don't hear too many people who get excited to get arrested, but I was. I had a reached a point health-wise – my pancreas inflamed every three months because of alcohol use. The more time I spend behind the cages, it gives me more time to heal."

Every two weeks, the 37-year old goes before Judge Mark Ashford’s court for a progress report. It's been that way for nearly a year. A volunteer mentor is by his side.

"Here you are and how well you are doing,” said Judge Ashford. “You are creating a path for others."

Kueth Deluony and Justin Poland met each other behind bars at the Veterans Unit at the Douglas County jail. Kueth is back in college. This time at the University of Nebraska Omaha studying law, and working full-time at the Shadow Lake HyVee in Papillion. “This program gave me a chance I never knew existed, because I thought everything was done."

Justin Polland – who works full-time as a car salesman – is reminded of his debt to society – and second chance through the eyes and spirit of his 7-year-old daughter Bella. "She's absolutely adorable. I just think back to getting arrested in front of her – and then going to jail and not seeing her for 6-months…and look at her now. Part of this is to make her proud and to heal myself so I can be there as her father."

"Just be straight with me,” said Judge Ashford to the defendant. “Have you consumed any drugs or alcohol in the past 2 days?"

For months, 6 News has been following the Douglas County Veterans Treatment Court.

Sometimes it appeared drugs or alcohol would win.

Judge: "Last time we met, you were honest with me, but we had to put you in jail. I think you spent the weekend there."

Army Vet David Williams: "As I sat in jail looking at nothing but concrete and possible convicts, I had to take a long look at what color I was wearing. And make a conscious and honest decision with myself that I could commit and have a bright future ahead."

Other times, the judge praised the veterans for their strength.

Judge: "With all the surgeries, you haven't used or gotten into the opiates. I know that you are suffering. Commitment and courage – that exemplifies it."

In the world of addictions and war-torn trauma -- setbacks are often a natural step to recovery. No one knows that better than Vietnam veteran Gerry Crawford. "I’m one of the trailblazers to get this started."

He's third person allowed into Douglas County Veterans Treatment Court. "I came here because I had a drug habit…a heroin habit. I've had it for 40-years, stemming from the Vietnam War. I committed a robbery while I was under the influence. Since then, I have 595 days of being clean. I've never been clean for that much time in my life."

From the volunteer mentors assigned to each veteran – to the lawyers and parole team – and the judge, it's one of the few courtrooms where everyone is on the same side.

Judge: "It's a balancing test for all that – for victims, for general population and defendants themselves."

We've always heard Lady Justice is blind. But this pilot project makes her lean a bit towards the veterans.

Judge: "They do get special treatment here. There's no question about that. In my opinion, they are a special class in this country. And the reason for that is now we have a volunteer army, these are the folks who are willing to sign their name on the dotted line to give up their lives for the rest of us. Less than one percent of the population is in the military today. We've known since Vietnam that veterans weren't treated well – although it's better now. And we hear about troubles with veteran's hospitals. I think that by their willingness to set themselves out there, they are special to us in America."

How's it work?

Court starts with a recommendation from the County Attorney's office. The victims must also approve of the move.

The veteran then pleads guilty to the felony charge. If they get kicked out of the treatment program – they face the jail time connected with the charge.

Otherwise – they get a break. Everyone who started in Douglas County is still with the program. Veterans are used to repetition – structure – rules of conduct -- tools they learned in the military. The Treatment Court uses that to foster success. The once strangers in this courtroom become family.

"I was in the Army Reserve – 82nd Field Hospital. Nowhere is that better on display than with Deborah Hook.

We first met her in June.

Judge: "We couldn't be more proud. Your convicted charge is possession with intent to deliver. Your work has been fantastic."

We saw her again in September.

Judge: "You still want to be a substance abuse counselor?

Deborah: "Yes, I would."

She's been clean for nearly a year.

Judge: "You're a very important cog to the machine. You’re the wheel that keeps us going, and before too awfully long – we have may have a graduate."

It's understood by everyone in the courtroom, recovery is fragile – and temptation real. Last week, Deborah Hook told her court family of her struggle.

Deborah: "Last week, I found out my car wasn't fixable, and the motor was shot."

And her grandson had medical concerns.

Deborah: "They had done an MRI and found 2 cysts on his brain."

Her world felt like it was crashing.

Deborah: "I have a lot of guilt for not being there for my daughter for awhile. I almost used. I asked someone who cared about me to tell me no."

She almost used. But didn't.

Deborah: "I'm so happy that I didn't because it would have made it worse and I can't let people down again. So I'm sorry I even thought about it."

Judge: "You've been a role model for your peers. And the fact that you were able to maintain your sobriety – when let's put it this way – if we wouldn't have jumped together in this program - - the decision would have been different."

"Everything that she's done right should be replicated,” said mentor coordinator Sherie Peterson, as she addressed the other veterans in court. “[Deborah] thought about the good stuff in her life and that helped her get through this. So good things – it means something. So every day we ask you to write down your 3 good things – that's something that helped her."

Deborah: "I have so many people who care about me and helped me get through this. I just want to thank everybody."

The 22nd of the month. Whether that falls on a weeknight or a weekend – it’s significant for veterans.

"On average, 22 veterans commit suicide every day,” said Cliff McEvoy, program manager for Lutheran Family Services At Ease. “So on the 22nd of the month, we as veterans support each other – at locations around the state of Nebraska – check in with each other to know we are ok and have a simple conversation."

At Cunningham's Pub and Grill in the Old Mill neighborhood – the men catch up on the past month. "Each one of those guys sitting with me tonight were once in the Douglas County jail. That's where we met,” said Barry Pettaway, who once thought about suicide during a period of despair and depression.

With Lutheran Family Services’ At Ease program, he now counsels other vets inside the Veterans' mod at the jail – and stays connected when they get out.

"I leave the titles at the door. I'm Barry when I roll in there, and we talk about things. We deal with real life. For them to look at me and say, 'I can't believe you used to be a heroin addict. I can't believe you used to smoke crack. I can't believe you did all those things.' I did, but you don't have to do those things today."

"He's lived a very full life and he's been through the same things a lot of us have. You can tell – he's been in the dirt with us,” said Justin Polland, who is going through the treatment court, but tries to attend the Buddy Check as often as possible.

Kueth Deluony lost two friends to suicide. His unit was set to return from Iraq – only to be put back into action because of an ordered troop surge. "It's different to lose someone to combat because it's part of the job. It's hard to see someone kill themselves because they don't want to deal with it anymore."

For Army vet, Justin Erickson – his breakthrough came during in-patient treatment at Warrior's Heart in Texas. "I have such a different outlook on life. As you heard, when I first came into this thing, I tried to commit suicide. The 2nd time – thank god my dog was there. She's the one who knocked the gun out of my hand. The outlook I have on life is 360-degrees different than what it was."

The Veterans Treatment Court is a place where even the defendants can be a resource for the others.

The Douglas County Veteran's Treatment Court hasn't yet had a graduate. Yet, its impact and purpose is felt outside of the metro.

In April – Lancaster County started the state's second Veterans Treatment Court.

While Nebraska is late to the game for this type of court as far as state's go – the first one began in New York in 2008 -- the Douglas County Veterans Treatment Court is already growing enough to have a new name.

"It's called the Metropolitan Veteran's Treatment Court."

Metropolitan – since the court recently extended its reach to veterans outside the county.

So far, there are 22 veterans in treatment as a system of lawyers, parole officers, veteran organizations, volunteers supporting them.

The ultimate goal remains -- helping a veteran overcome battlefield scars to create positive citizens.

Judge Ashford did the math – what if these vets were in prison instead? "We're saving the taxpayers with our group a $500,000."

Studies from other states have shown that Veterans Treatment Court graduates are much less likely to re-offend than others who have done their time.

Ronald Holesko, Marine veteran: "Honesty. I take very seriously. No clue where it comes from but it's something I take a lot of pride in."

As the veterans achieve different levels of progress, they get a permanent reminder in the form of a personalized dog tag -- symbols of accountability and lasting recovery.

For Kueth Deluony – 2018 is shaping up to be a good year.

He's expected to graduate twice -- from UNO – and Veterans Treatment Court. “Not only veterans deserve a second chance, I think everyone deserves a second chance."
On one Thursday afternoon – Gerry Crawford's sister addressed the court – saying it was good to have the brother she used to know back.
Gerry: "The people I associate with and be around now – are people who bring great joy to my life. I've met so many people and I didn't know it was possible to feel like this."

His mentor has been critical to his success. "Eddie Nelson has bestowed in me that excellence is never an accident,” said Gerry Crawford. “It's the result of high intentions, effort, direction and skillful execution to see obstacles as opportunities."

For Justin Polland, the PTSD therapy continues.

But as he would tell you – love and caring of family can quickly bring one out of the shadows. "I'm hoping that i can not only get past my misstep in judgment, but make my life better. Not only for myself, but my family – especially my 7-year-old daughter."