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Philadelphia Life: Veterans court gives a second chance to vets

Army veteran James Anderson, 43, shows off his veterans court coin in Philadelphia after graduating from a nine-month drug treatment program through Philadelphia Veterans Court Dec. 10, 2010. Veterans court is a type of treatment court that caters specifically to the unique needs of justice-involved veterans. (Photo by Jessica Bell)

PHILADELPHIA – Courtroom 1006 in the Criminal Justice Center is not an ordinary courtroom. Municipal Court Judge Patrick F. Dugan presides in front of large banner that says, “Philadelphia Treatment Court.” The flags of the United States Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, Navy and Coast Guard are to his right.

“We better not see any of you back here,” Dugan, 50, paternally said, pointing his finger at the crowd of defendants. “Remember we expect the best out of you because you are the best.”

The defendants in this courtroom are veterans suffering from substance abuse and emotional issues, often times because of their experiences in the military. The court offers treatments that cater to their specific needs.

On Dec. 10 the Philadelphia Veterans Court held their second graduation. The ceremony represents the veterans’ completion of treatment programs or therapy, and for many a criminal record wiped clean.

Marine Corp veteran, Natasha Cunningham, 28, a petite young woman with a radiant smile wearing a bright pink t-shirt and jeans bounced up to the microphone at the graduation.

“I want to thank the court,” she said. “It’s been another opportunity for me to show what I’m made of.”

Cunningham was arrested for simple assault after a fight with her boyfriend became violent. Before graduating from the Veterans Court program she completed therapy with the VA to find out why she would become violent during arguments with her boyfriend.

“It’s nice because here they continue to look at us like we are the best,” she said. “Being here almost made me want to re-sign my contract.”

Like other treatment courts the goal of Veterans Court is to have the records of the veterans expunged, to help them move past their substance abuse or emotional problems.

“We’re not giving out free passes here, we’re simply trying to put veterans in touch with services they are eligible for and didn’t always know about,” said Dugan, a captain in the Army Reserve who served in Iraq in 2004 and Afghanistan in 2006.

The program, which is about a year old, is a joint effort between the municipal court, the district attorney’s office, the public defender and the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

All parties work together to come up with the best plan for each veteran. Public defender Melissa Stango and assistant district attorney Guy Garant, a Marine Corps veteran, work closely to determine what kind of sentencing the veteran will receive.

“Sometimes it’s a diversion and their case is held open until they are finished treatment and other times it’s a probationary offer,” Stango said. “This is a conviction but instead of reporting to a probation officer they report to the VA and the judge at progress hearings.”

Garant said he makes his decision about sentencing offers on a case-by-case basis.

“It really depends on their previous criminal records,” he said of how he makes his decisions.“ We are also trying to look for people who will cooperate with treatment or what’s the point?”

Rebecca Hicks, 28, a social worker at the VA Medical Center is Philadelphia’s veterans justice outreach (VJO) specialist and is present at each weekly veterans court session.

VJO is a national Veterans Affairs initiative that officially began in June 2008. The initiative is designed to help eligible veterans receive the help they need through VA benefits. Every VA medical center in the country has at least one social worker appointed to this position.

During a Dec. 3 court session, that heard approximately 30 veterans cases in two and a half hours, Hicks sat quietly beside Stango and handed appointment cards to the veterans as they were officially accepted into the program. Hicks assesses every veteran participating in the program and refers them to the proper services they need for treatment.

“Rebecca is extremely important to the veterans court,” Dugan said. “Having the VA in the room is what makes this court different from other treatment courts. I want to get these cases sorted out as quickly as possible for [the veterans] and that helps.”

When Hicks assesses the veterans she is looking at everything from their mental and physical health to their employment status to where they live and what kinds of relationships they have.

“I get a full scope of who they are so I can refer them to the things they need at the VA,” she said.

Once she has made her recommendations her job is to make sure that the veterans are following through with their treatment plans.

“I feel very lucky because out of the team I’m really the only one that gets to see the veterans outside of the courtroom,” Hicks said. “I get to know them first hand and I get to see their lives change.”

Due to the large number of DUI and drug possession charges most of the veterans have a combination of therapy and substance abuse treatment.

“There’s a lot of underlying social issues for veterans in the justice system,” Hicks said.

Of the veterans Hicks deals with 39 percent are combat veterans, mostly from the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

“PTSD isn’t always there but it’s definitely prevalent and if the vet has been in a combat situation it’s likely that it is an underlying issue,” Dugan said.

Municipal Court Judge Patrick F. Dugan, looks up from behind the bench to congratulate the defendants in veterans court for graduating from the program Dec. 10, 2010. Dugan, a veteran himself, along with Judge Joseph C. Waters adjudicates Philadelphia's Veterans Court, a type of treatment court that meets the specific needs of veterans. This was the courts second graduation since its conception in January 2010. (Photo byJessica Bell)

Often times the veterans are also first time offenders as well as dealing with their emotional issues for the first time.

“Most of the time the first time offenders don’t really know what’s going on so they’re a little nervous,” said Garant.

Dugan can see this in the courtroom and tries to help by beginning every case by asking the defendants what branch of the military they served in, usually making a joke or two about the rivalries between the branches, and ends every case thanking the veteran for their service.

“Most defendants come into any kind of courtroom with a chip on their shoulder,” Dugan said. “By talking to them about their service I can connect with them. I want them to be able to relax in there.”

Another approach the veterans court program uses to make the veterans feel comfortable with both the treatment and criminal sides to their case is to provide mentors. The mentors must be veterans themselves and give moral support to the veterans in the program.

“If you were a pregnant woman you wouldn’t go ask a woman with no children for advice, you would ask the woman with four kids,” Albert El, 68, a mentor and Vietnam veteran said. “That’s what it’s like being a mentor – we know where they’ve been so we understand each other.”

El also acknowledged that part of being a mentor is making sure the veterans stick with their treatment plans.

“Some of them don’t know they’re being blessed with this opportunity,” he said. “I try to help them see that.”
It is important that the veterans maintain their programs and graduate – Veterans Court is meant to work like a diversion program, especially for first time offenders.

Veterans court coordinator, Janet Ditomasso, who runs the mentor program and organizes the court, says it can be emotional watching the veterans graduate from the program.

“It’s heartwarming because you can really see the pride coming right back out of them,” she said.

At the graduation each veteran receives a certificate of completion and a military coin with the veterans court emblem on the front. Each of Dec. 10’s graduate stepped up to the microphone with a smile and said a few words about how the court reminded them of the person they were before they were arrested – when they served their country.

“Whether they were serving in Vietnam or North Dakota, they put their lives on the line,” Dugan said. “They’re the best the nation has and I expect a lot from them because I know they have it in them.”

Seeing the previous criminal records of some of the veterans she works with Stango said it’s nice to finally see the veterans’ service being recognized.

“We have a lot of older clients that aren’t first time offenders and they have gone all these years without getting treatment,” she said. “It’s really nice to see them now having all these VA benefits made available to them.”


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Why can’t the Military help all veterans why should it always be about veterans who have drug problems or who got violent issures. There over 1 million veterans in this country who have many kinds of problems and most of the problems we have are because of the military. We talk about duty,honor and loyalty but we turn our backs on those who don’t have a clear piece of paper from the military. We are not fulfill President Lincoln’s promise “To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan” by serving and honoring the men and women who are America’s veterans. Where is the we practice open,truthful, and timely communication with our veterans we carefuly listening and responds to their concerns and we will treat all veterans with the utmost dignity and stewardship. President Lincoln’s promise was very clear about this nation responsible to all veterans and it was ensure responsible. This country reworded its responsible to some veterans.

Basil Fomigne says:

Willie, could you rewrite that in English?

Tony Rivera says:

To whom it may concern: I feal this program is an excellent start. Veterans dealing with legal issues should be placed in a system that is more adequit to confort such issues veterans face. Moreover; Veterans desereve the best; and I know Abraham Lincoln would concur. This is not to say veterans don’t have to comply with the law. A veteran should not have to face any of this country’s system alone, because without veterans, whom have served to protect our country in it’s entirity; there would be no government/law/systems.

What better hands to be placed into then the hands that created these men and women who have served to protect Liberty,Justice,& Freedom of the United States of America

Tony F. Rivera

Veterans Courts Nationwide says:

Who made your coin for your VC?


Fort Worth, Texas

DAMIAN says:


John Hannah says:

I am a combat vet with PTSD and a lot of other health issues. However, I know right from wrong. I ask for nothing and I give nothing.

Brian says:

I completely agree with John some of the main problems in the Military is not all know how to handle problem cases or the fault is pointed towarss their connection to military service. I have been focused 100% of the time on my goals and before entering the Military most know the difference between right and wrong. Why is it they get better treatment or a second chance when most civilians that never had the road paved for them are trying their hardest to make the road themselves mess up and are givin the “normal” punishment ?

My opinion is if you were prior military we should be given no chances at all we already know what is right and wrong have had it instilled into us repeatedly. There are no excuses such as oh their prior military lets take it easy on them WTH is that crap. The people using oh I’m in the military or I’m a veteran is diluting the service and the sacrifices that were and are being made just so some people can use it as a get out of jail free card.

Yeah i ramble so what who know maybe it due to my PTSD where’s my sympathy

Lee says:

Brian your an idiot for not backing your fellow service men and women the first thing were taught is to back each other on and off the battlefield. Veterans should be shown a little slack considering what they call our “system” is really considered a “nonsystem” and is geared mainly to provide monetary gain to someone thats probably already breaking the law. Note city officials for instance, biggest crooks in the city and these people are shown a little slack all the time.

dave walters says:

I personally know Judge Joe Waters, and i commend him and the other Judges involved with this program. It’s nice to see people who say they care about the vets actually doing something. HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL INVOLVED WITH THIS PROGRAM. VETS, NOW YOU KNOW SOMEBODY HAS YOUR BACK, GOOD LUCK, MAKE THE BEST HAPPEN.

Brian says:

There is a diffenerce between backing and covering up. I would gladley help any even non military, anyone that asked for help would recieve help from me but if you want me to forgive and or forget of you breaking the law ?? can not do it. You wonder why all you see in present time in the military is a huge list of people fired from their jobs in the military for illegal acts it’s due to everyone not holding them accountable and letting them get away with their acts till it gets to the point where all their actions start to flow over the carpet you tried to hide their past actions. All im saying is i joined the military to give all (life) or some (service) with no hesitation i made that choice myself. Most nowadays throw around everywhere that they are or were in the military and expecting doors to open and people to bow and let them do what ever they want. That makes me sick those people are from the “Me Me Me” generation.

To Brian says:

Brian, please, please, please proof-read before you hit “submit comment”. It is difficult to even decipher what your trying to say. Punctuation is important. Do not leave it out. Thanks.

Jose says:

Hey brian dude! The me, me, me generation are OK! Are you a combat vet, do you know what combat is. I am a combat veteran of the Viet Nam war..I walked the jungles of viet nam for one whole year…I do not what anything I did not earn. What I earned is mine. The Men and Woman in uniform today have my respect and they will always get it. I Thank God for programs such as these to help them.

Moniqe says:

I commend Judge Dugan for his efforts in the Veterans Court Program. I think that this is an excellent ideal and should be avaiable to ALL veterans in every State. Congratulations to the graduates of the 10 December 2010 Class. Make the best of the blessings that have been extended to you. I am a veteran and am currently fighting (with little success) to obtain benefits due to me following my time served in the military. It is refreshing to note that somewhere, someone truly does care about our veterans. Thank you Judge Dugan.

Terry Engel says:

I have to say that it’s bvetter late then never that someone has finally woken-up, and realised that vets, from the country to the sand-box need a little more than a thank you for offering our lives.

I only wish I had the space, and time, and of course someone that truly cares, that would take the time to read about the questions, and maybe furnish just a couple answers I have concerning our great national “Veteran’s Administration”.

Myself, a three (3) time upper during Vietnam still get broomed around so well by those that hold the positions that are supposed to have the answers, that like a great many I have given up, on searching for the truths, and answers if there are any.

Many of us that need to get answers to questions that would help us make our way through life a little easier, as far as the V.A. is concerned, are met at the front desk of Hospitals, clinics (not always medical clinics), and other military service orientated outlets by people…..by youngsters that can’t tell you where Vietnam is, and we are left in those unknowing, and uncaring hands. Now, that’s not to say that some of the people working for the government don’t really care, I know some do, or at lest I pray like hell some do.

The point being, if I can still remember it, is why aren’t there more programs in the V.A., and not the programs that pay someone a couple hundred thousand dollars a year to do no more then get thier picture taken with some flash in the pan elected official that cut a ribbon instead of his wrists, that can, and here’s a word not generally used in today’s political world, honestly, and truthfully help out the poor slobs that couldn’t shower for a week, or eat a hot meal, or get a roll of toilet paper, and have real troubles?

I can’t speak of, nor would I bring anybody elses personal information into an open forum like this but to make a point, I will speak of this incident.

As a chest pounding, full of pride, patriotic, tattoo wearing, idealistic captilistic young man that believed I’d be doing the right thing by dropping out of high school to get a G.E.D. so I could go kill bad guys, and preserve the American way of life. I took the whole “Hook, line, and sinker”.

I quit highschool, and did what every male in my family before me had done, I didn’ wait for the draft board to mail me a letter (postcard), I proudly joined the United States Military. Unfortunately, even before I began the rigorous training of the United States Naval boot camp at Great Lakes, Il I suffered a bad injury to my right knee that kept me back, and ultimately created a situation that got me discharged.

I wasn’t very happy about the discharge at all, but like all men I accepted my fate, and was sent home.

Sounds funny hey, but here’s where the UNited States Government started to screw things up, and to this day I can’t get my DD-214 corrected, the guy (whatever rank he was) that made out my 214 decided to write “Erroneous Enlistment” in the area for the reason for my discharge.

At 18 years of age before I left school I had no idea what erroneous meant, and I sure as hell didn’t know what it meant then. I know what it means now.

That was back in the very early ’70’s, Not too long ago I tried to get things straitened out so my DD-214 would be correct, and here comes the whole point to this long winded writing, and I do apologize to those that have taken the time to read it, but at the same time I do appreciate those that have read it.

For those that don’t know the definition of erroneous, it means by itself..”mistaken” “Done in error”.

The United States Naval Service had mistakenly allowed me to enlist in the Navy according to them. So, instead of taking responsibility for the injury that kept me out of the Navy, the educated clerk, and I’m sure he was instructed to do so, just typed a word that has kept me from claiming any benefits for that knee, which has needed several surgeries to repair it, and all at a cost to a private insurer.

The bright spot to this whole incident while I was trying to get my DD-214 corrected was that ST Loius burned down, and alot of records were lost, *my medical records included, was the guy at the Zablocki Center in Woods Wisconsin that was dragging his feet working with me, and this is the truth…told me…”A note from my mom would hlep”.

Sorry it took so long to ge this out there, but I had to say something after reading about the good someone was finally doing……and I bet he didn’t need a note from his mom to help out American Veterans……Still Americas Greatest Assests

James Midgett says:

I hear alot of people not backing their fellow brothers and sisters in arms.. Yes we all should know right from wrong but unless you have walked in the shoes of the people going through this how can you judge? Trust me I know how hard it is to find out about what services the VA offers. This court is not forgeting the wrongs done but giving the vet a chance to get the help he or she may not have known was there, and I am sure the judge is not just giving them a slap on the wrist, some of the programs are very hard and require alot of effort on the vets part to complete. Lets give programs like this a chance if it changes just one life is it not worth it?

Mike White NAVY 14 YEARS says:

The fact of the matter is these men and women that are benefitting from the attention and understanding of this court and any system like it, are getting a chance at maturation catching up with the training and growth the military almost certainly fosters in individuals. Military life, in my opinion, is the deep end of the pool without necessarily knowing how to swim from previous experiences and influences in life-that sought to teach little and make you as jaded as possible (what other transition can a young person make that almost immediately puts a life, they haven’t defined for themselves, in danger and gives it so much purpose as to be that one most selfless act of standing in the way of harm of millions of people). Most people who find themselves spinning their wheels trying to get a grip are those who had little foundation to begin with and military inclusion is no more a fix than college or just going to work transitioning from one kind of influence to another. It is a concept that requires an ability to infer purpose and discern where you as an individual fit into and can add to that purpose…it is not as simple as having something instilled(implying installed I think) as one comment suggests. These were individuals before the military and while being in the military offered a grand opportunity for identity and inclusion, it doesn’t remedy for a person finding him or herself involved in something so big without that foundation from which to continue growing and finally contributing. Brian, I don’t think you are an idiot but I do think you are a little too hard and possibly unfair where people with real problems could benefit from your way and success of dealing with life (if in no other way than knowing life can be dealt with in the upmost and most honorable way). BRAVO ZULA to this system and at least an attempt at substance over form, action over words and downright compassion where more often than not compassion is not found. Let’s forget for a moment, if that’s possible, the sacrifices of these individuals for their country and try for a moment to look beyond the moment they found themselves in whatever situation that led to them being in front of this judge…many American cultures would benefit from this being a total success story than would not. Many, many children and adults would know that life is livable, with just the right amount of compromise, under all circumstances!!!! And, it is not just getting a second chance but being shown by example through compassion and gratitude what can be done with a second chance. There is always something where it appears to be nothing…tangible or intangible! The very foundation I think this country was built upon…something great out of very little if nothing at all.

Mike White NAVY 14 YEARS says:


Rus 23 years AF, retired says:

I suppose this has been beaten to death, but what the heck. BRIAN, is an idiot. We all spent a majority of our life in “Service” to our country. And we all deserve what ever comes our way to make us better. I self identified, and still almost got let go. If you don’t experience problems it’s easy to judge those of us who have. Not to mention that for our active duty lives we are held to a higher standard than “regular” people.

I wear my veteran status with a great deal of pride. And I readily accept anything that status brings my way.

Jack Morris says:

You know, I have my DD214 on my FB page (Jack Morris, Sunset Valley, TX) and I was one badarse combat medic with CAV and MEDDAC experience. I used to work in the E.R. at Ft. Belvoir after the war and I PCSed from Germany. I saw many people (high ranking too) that developed substance problems. I never judged them because I knew they were in emotional or physical pain. I always gave compassion and an ear. Little did I know back in 92-94 that I would get the same illness. I got a 3rd DWI here in Travis county TX and got 5 years probation, then SAFPF, then prison. We are just now getting a veterans court. Had we had one with mentors my chances of success would be much higher, it’s proven all over the nation. For those that say WE ARE SO MUCH BETTER THAN THAT, no to veterans courts or treatment. I say this. Cast that stone and it will bite you in the butt later.

Brian says:

Wow talk about stirring the pot maybe my original post was not linked so you do not know what I originally posted I stated I can only speak from the Naval military’s perspective. I am in the same shoes as most of these people that went through that court system. Amongst many other problems I am not getting into. The Navy that I have been in since 97 and I have the utmost respect for all other branches of service of prior wars ad current. Feel bad that you all jumped in towards then end post that I can say is my fault.

I might be able to say wrong place wrong timing but my almost 14 years of service and through many conflicts and wars with ground time I know the urgency and true respect of the Military warrior. The population I am frustrated with is the “Rest” they brag about scamming, lying, cheating and the common Navy has fostered this attitude and it is severely diluting the value of the Navy military members.

One example showboats as I call them they are full of hot air. This guy is in charge of about 45 people in the Navy he swears up and down how he loves this “S***” the navy is in his blood. Yet this same service member is on his facebook account all day long nonstop trying to friend every female service member that crosses his path. The other leadership gives him crap about it joking with him but that is all he does all day long everyone knows about it no one wants to do anything about it. You may be thinking so what, this is one very small example of the many I have. Unfortunately this is the norm I feel most service members in the Navy are not earning their pay or living up to the expectation that they should be. Every day I regret joining the Navy and wish I would have joined a different service to where I feel I could have made a better contribution to our country. Unfortunately right after joining the Navy and my attitude of always doing more I severely injured myself to which there is no repair. So I am here doing basic naval service till my time is up.

Sum it up yes there is some that are Ernest with their mistakes and do need help and hopefully this will give them their chance. Now from my view in the Navy this looks like something that will be exploited by the small percentage that I was directing my anger at. Should have been clearer earlier that was my bad.

Tee Wilson says:

What about a veteran who did not know about the veterans court and was convicted and sentenced then subsequently learned about The veterans court., Can this veteran appeal his sentence and or conviction due to post traumatic stress disorder, drug abuse, or other issues that resulted in a sentence. Is the attorney liable for not exploring alternative rehabilitative dispositions that the veteran was unaware of .

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