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Courts help veterans in Orange County and around the nation

Veterans courts
Veterans whose lives have collided with the criminal justice system are increasingly turning up in veterans courts across the nation.

There are now more than 90 courts across the U.S., including nine in California, tailored to veterans willing to work to repair their lives.

One of the first such courts was in Orange County, where veterans who meet the judge's criteria, including maintaining steady employment and staying clean and sober, can have their charges dropped or reduced.

The weekly sessions at Orange County's Combat Veterans Court provide a one-stop service, bringing together representatives from the district attorney's office and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' Justice Outreach program, along with probation officers and volunteer mentors. Each veteran is carefully evaluated by a team before being accepted into the program.

It took three arrests and the threat of prison to get Shaughn Whittington to the court. He slumped in a black suit, blue shirt and black tie, bracing for a claustrophobic courtroom, a stern judge.

No need. Here, defendants are called participants. People applaud. Judge Wendy Lindley hands out gift cards.

"It looks more like a support group instead of a courtroom," said Whittington, 27, who was arrested twice on drug charges and once on suspicion of assault. "It's that Marine Corps mentality. You look at it like it's a joke."

Lindley's court stands apart nationally. It is designed exclusively for combat veterans. As a longtime Superior Court judge, she has seen what the residue of combat stress can do.

"We are dealing with people whose mental and physical health is very compromised," she said. "We owe them, each one of them, the highest level of care."

She designed her court to be especially sensitive to war's psychic wounds, which are difficult to understand, let alone heal. Participation is voluntary; only murder cases are ineligible.

The program is capped at 50 to ensure individualized treatment. What began with five participants is now fully booked. From 2010 to 2011, the number of people referred to the program jumped 41%. As with other veterans courts, if a judge's criteria are met, charges can be dropped or reduced.

Those in Lindey's program share more than battlefield experience. All had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, often with additional war-related complications, such as traumatic brain injury. She hadn't been looking for these conditions as a requirement.

Paul Freese, vice president of the Public Counsel Law Center, calls Lindley's court the "gold standard."

"This is by far the model we want people to emulate," he said. "Individuals don't have to go from place to place to place to get the services that they need."

Los Angeles County launched a veterans court in 2010 and accepts only veterans facing felony charges, not misdemeanors. It expects its first graduates Tuesday.

"If these guys don't get help, I think they're going to deteriorate," said Superior Court Judge Michael Tynan, who oversees about 75 veterans in the L.A. County program.

As for Whittington's case, the story is familiar. Deployed as a mortar man in the Iraq invasion, he returned to civilian life in 2005. The transition was fitful at best. He was diagnosed with PTSD and, later, traumatic brain injury.

There are scraps of war memories, like bullets whistling past him, inches from his head. There was a recurring nightmare from the battlefield. He was angry, depressed. Fearing he might hurt his then-wife, he started sleeping in a different bed. Vices took hold. He started popping narcotic pain relievers and smoking meth.

Then he found himself in Lindley's court.

"You start coming out of a coma, pretty much," said Whittington, who checked into an in-patient treatment center during Phase 1. "You start realizing all the damage you did to the people around you."

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-- Nicole Santa Cruz

Photo: Attorney Mark Dewit, left, puts his arm around a veteran who is doing well in L.A. County's veterans court program. Judge Michael Tynan, right, oversees about 75 participants in the program, which was founded in 2010 and expects its first graduates Tuesday. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times.

 
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