Sussex success: Court mentoring program offers veterans a second chance

GEORGETOWN — U.S. Army veteran Eric Chandler experienced combat first-hand during two tours of Iraq and another of Afghanistan.

Back home in America, he had a brush with the law.

“I caught a whiff and got a flashback … the smell or something. I thought I was back in combat, protecting my home,” said the 38-year-old Laurel resident. “I had an episode. I spazzed out and started driving a vehicle, crashing cars. I was facing 6 ½ years in prison.”

As a veteran he got a second chance. Opportunity to avoid a potentially lengthy prison sentence was Veterans Treatment Court. It’s a program geared is to divert veterans charged with nonviolent felonies and misdemeanor crimes away from jail and into rehabilitative programs.

Mr. Chandler successfully went through the rehabilitation program. Now, he is a mentor, helping fellow military veterans who have found themselves on the wrong side of the law.

“Chandler did a great job himself. He worked really hard at what he did,” said Tarry McGovern, a mentor coordinator for the program. “He (Eric) is actually helping me. He is going to stay with me for a while. I go to Florida on occasion, so he’ll be taking over these guys when I am gone.”

The program generally runs from six to 18 months.

The Superior Court of Delaware Veterans Treatment Court was launched in Sussex County in 2014. It began in Kent County in 2011, followed by New Castle County in 2013.

The Sussex VTC Mentor Team currently is armed with 18 active mentors (14 men and four women) with six more on leave of absence; and three that completed serving the VTC.

Former U.S. Marine Bill Gay speaks at the presentation of a shadow box with award medals at Veterans Treatment Court.

Former U.S. Marine, retired Lt. Col. Bill Gay heads the mentoring program for the Sussex Veterans Treatment Court.

“Obviously, it is everybody working together. These mentees and the mentors make everything work,” said Mr. Gay. “There is a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes by lots of the mentors.”

“Mentors, I have said this many times, the strength of the court here in large measure is our veterans that have served; people that have seen things and understand what veterans who have served our country … that they have special problems because they took the oath and they served our country,” said Superior Court Judge Richard Stokes, who has been “on the bench” for over 50 years starting as a USAF JAG Officer during the Vietnam era. “You know what those problems are … post-traumatic stress syndrome, traumatic brain injury, all kinds of tough circumstances. It is very important: don’t leave any veteran behind.”

The first Sussex County Veterans Treatment Court session was In October 2014. As of September 2017:

  • 21 veterans graduated (18 men/three Women) and returned with dignity to productive lives;
  • 19 veterans were currently enrolled (16 men/three women) living in the community or resident treatment;
  • six were terminated and three were deceased while enrolled.

While not a statistic officially tracked, it is estimated about 25 percent of veterans enrolled are or were Delaware National Guard.

“We have a really great cadre of mentors. They are just great guys that we work very hard with,” said Mr. McGovern. “This is probably the best run Vet Court in Delaware. I’ve been involved with a lot of them. But Bill (Gay) has just taken this. I have to give him all of the credit in the world.”

Veterans in VTC program attend regular court status conferences, participate in development of their treatment plans and engage in community treatment groups as required. Upon completion of the program, if the veteran was not yet convicted the charges will be dismissed. If the vet was already convicted probation will be terminated.

Termination means incarceration or higher probation levels for longer periods.

Judge Richard Stokes holds one of the coins given to each graduate of the Sussex Veterans Treatment Court. Looking on is Brigadier General Michael Berry of the Delaware National Guard.

Successful graduates of the program receive a special coin, Judge Stokes noted.

Approximately 80 percent of veterans in VTC graduate. Fewer than five percent reenter the courts.

“I keep in touch with them,” said Mr. McGovern. “If they have problems I try to do everything I can do. I go up with them. We form a little relationship. I get to know them. Most of the guys are pretty self-sufficient.”

Anthony Hopkins, a 55-year-old Army veteran from Milton, is among those on the rebound. He spent about a year at an inpatient Veterans Affairs medical facility in Coatesville, PA.

“Actually, I had gotten busted a couple times for drugs that I violated. I went to Coatesville to seek some help. I went in May of 2016, and left June of this year,” Mr. Hopkins said. “Now, I am here trying to get more help.”

“Anthony did so well there they kept him there,” said Mr. McGovern.

“I was an RA (Residential Assistant). When the new guys come in, I try to help them out and try to keep peace amongst so many different personalities. We had people with PTSD, people with anxiety problems and drug problems,” said Mr. Hopkins. “You just try to comfort them and make sure that they have the things that they need or try to lead them in a direction where they can get some help for certain problems and issues.”

Thursday, Sept. 28 was a special day at Veterans Treatment Court.

Army Ranger Oscar Gonzales stands with the shadow box with award medals presented to the Veterans Treatment Court. Mr. Gonzales and his family made the shadow box.

A painting by an incarcerated veteran and a shadow box with award ribbons were presented to Judge Stokes in the courtroom.

Army Ranger Oscar Gonzales and his three sons who along with his wife Delfina built the shadow box.

“One thing jumped out; the largest set of ribbons in the case were provided by someone that had been enrolled in the court (VTC), someone who after a long and successful career had made one mistake,” said Mr. Gay. “And had it not been for the court that person might have found themselves in the general prison population. He graduated.”

The portrait was done by Randolph Brown, a resident in the Sussex Correctional Intuition. It was noted Mr. Brown has been incarcerated for a period time and this “is his way of giving back to the veterans.”

“I can tell you this is humbling and joyfully accepted,” said Judge Stokes. “This is a source of inspiration for all us … that good things happen, hard work pays off, nothing is easy, missions will succeed. God bless you. God bless all of you.”

A painting done by an incarcerated veteran is presented to the Veterans Treatment Court by chief security officer Rene Flores.

Brigadier General Michael Berry, commander of the Delaware National Guard Land Component, was on hand for the ceremonies.

“To see the participation of mentors and what you are doing for the mentees is recognized, the value is recognized the commitment you are making,” said Brig. Gen. Berry, who is deputy commander of Delaware State Police Troop 4 in Georgetown. “Circumstances are what they are, certainly the veteran population is a little different than the general population. Judge, for you and your staff, it is where it all begins. We thank you for that in taking care of our veterans. You said it, ‘Just taking the oath puts us in positions to maybe experience things, be involved in some things that not everybody else is.”

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at grolfe@newszap.com

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.