Sunday, December 17, 2023

Flashback 2010: Veterans Court assists vets the rest of us forget

      I attended a graduation ceremony at Cook County Mental Health Court on Thursday, for a column running in Monday's paper. It's one of three "problem-solving courts" the county runs. Another is veterans court, which I mention in the story, and have written about several times over the years. This is the first one, in a story timed for Veterans Day:

     Cyril Hall isn't the kind of vet you'll probably have in mind when you put out the flag tomorrow for Veterans Day. He didn't fight in Iraq or Afghanistan — he's 51, an Army combat engineer who did bridge repair.
     Hall doesn't have a job — he's on disability for a bad back. (The idea that vets as a group can't find jobs, or have trouble holding jobs, is a myth — the unemployment rate for all veterans is 8.1 percent, better than the rate for the general population).
     Hall has battled drugs, and was arrested for possession of a controlled substance.
     "It wasn't mine," he says of the bag of drugs that led to his arrest, which brought him here, to the Cook County Criminal Court Building at 26th and California. Blame was put on him "since it was closest to me."
     But in one respect Hall represents a military elite — he is among the 54 vets enrolled in Cook County's Veterans Court program, formed last year as a "specialty court."
     "We have drug courts, mental health courts — Veterans Court is an extension of that," said Criminal Division Presiding Judge Paul Biebel Jr., who heard about such courts in Buffalo and Tulsa and thought they were needed here. "A lot of people who come in here have issues."
     We are a nation that just went through a mid-term election and barely talked about the two, count 'em, two wars we are currently fighting. We can hardly force ourselves to pause from fretting about the economy to pay attention to soldiers fighting and dying on our behalf every day, never mind those who fought in previous wars, particularly vets who get in trouble like Hall. That's what this court does; it gives vets not a legal break, but support they are entitled to.
     The real work of Veterans Court does not take place when Circuit Court Judge John P. Kirby enters his courtroom and all rise; rather, the heavy lifting of helping these vets get back on track goes on an hour beforehand, at a pre-court meeting, in a room so crowded with staff — I count 19 people -- there isn't room for them to sit around the table. Representatives from the states attorney, public defender and sheriff's offices are here, along with those from the U.S., Illinois and Chicago offices of veterans affairs, plus probation officers, drug counselors, homeless coordinators, legal clinics.
     "Everybody was already up and running," says Kirby. "Every program here was in existence. We just put everybody in the same room and said, 'How can we work with veterans the best that we know how?' "
     One by one, Kirby reads the names of the vets on today's court docket, and the caseworkers involved report regarding drug tests and program participation.
     "Looks like he's been attending all his meetings . . ."
     "He came back positive for cocaine . . ."
     "We're just waiting for the results so we can fax them over."
     Kirby occasionally asks pointed questions: "Have we reached a member of his family? There was one there, early on . . ."
     To qualify for Veterans Court, an accused vet has to be charged with a crime the law doesn't require jail time for if convicted.
     "We don't take violent crimes or sex crimes," says Kirby. "We are looking for people who commit probational offenses."
     Afterward, the vets whose progress — or lack of progress — has been reviewed appear in court. Some are in custody, brought in wearing sand-colored DOC scrubs. Some are in street clothes — untucked button-down shirts mostly. Some are appearing for the first time.
     "I've been informed you are a veteran," Kirby tells a young woman.
     "I was in Iraq," she says.
     "What I am going to do is have you interviewed by our veteran's team," says Kirby.
     Veterans are a special class for two reasons. First, their service to the country implies that — at least at one point — they had more on the ball than the average street criminal. And second, as vets, they qualify for services that aren't available to non-veterans. Help is available to them, and Veterans Court tries to make sure they get it.
     "A veteran comes in, we want to treat that person as a whole, not just a case before us," says Kirby. "If he needs treatment, if he needs housing, we have Volunteers of America, Featherfist, for housing. If other issues, we send him to the John Marshall clinic."
     Not only is Veterans Court the right thing to do, but it works, as a crime-fighting tool.
     "The year prior, the individuals entering our program had 278 felony arrests total," says Kirby. "A year later they were four — that's a decrease of 98.6 percent."
     There are three other Veterans Courts in Cook County besides Kirby's, with another set to open in Bridgeview next month — that's where Hall's case was, before an alert assistant public defender suggested he transfer to Kirby's courtroom.
     "I wish they had this years ago," Hall says. "It is working. I'm not doing any drugs anymore because of it."
     None of this laborious attention is patriotic bluster. It's not what people have in mind when they stick a yellow ribbon magnet on their cars — and fewer even bother to do that anymore. But as the needs of vets grow, merely "remembering" them rings hollow, something we do more for our benefit than for theirs. All the unheralded people working to make Veterans Court happen actually help real vets to get their lives back. More of us should do the same.
     — Originally published in the Sun-Times Nov. 10, 2010


  1. Didn't know about this and good to know.

  2. An excellent example of government serving the people. Veterans especially are underserved in relation to their contributions. The photo here is one such depiction of extreme situations American veterans experience in service to the country. The Korean War Memorial evokes memories of the retreat from the Chosin Reservoir during the Chinese attack in support of the failing North Korean army. I missed it during my first visit to D.C. but made it a priority the second time through. I drove in during a biting snow storm and went straight to the site before lodging. The wind was cold and stinging in concert with the icy snow, similar to the conditions faced by the Marines in Korea. No one else had braved the elements that day and the fallen snow muffled the sounds from the nearby streets, increasing my sense of isolation from the city. The statues are oversized and a little grotesque as I remember. Covered with snow, as I was also, I felt like I was walking with them, some looking back towards the approaching enemy, others leading the way forward. Many of them did not make it home and probably the survivors didn't receive an adequate level of support when it was over.

    1. I saw the Korean Memorial in DC one dark evening - it is haunting. So few remember or discuss this time in history, but its impact was profound upon many.

    2. It certainly was. Many Korean War vets, sandwiched between WWII and Vietnam, were overlooked when they had problems. My parents were friends with an older couple, whose son went to Korea. He came back a different person. Deserted the Army, did time in prison, and eventually took his own life. His mother never really got over it. She lived to the age of 102.

      During my college days (the late 60s), I had an older neighbor who had been in Korea. Abuser of alcohol...and also a serial abuser of women. The walls and floors were thin. I heard the beatings. Vietnam veterans were just beginning to receive the attention they needed and deserved. But he just got lost in the shuffle and crawled deeper and deeper into the bottle.

      Last I ever saw of him, he was babbling incoherently at a party. Nobody knew what to do. They just sat and looked at their hands. There was a lot of that going around in those days. Help is probably more readily available now.

  3. Yes, had visited that Memorial- almost the forgotten conflict and my dad was there.

    1. Mine, too. The second of 3 wars he fought in.


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