Only veterans’ first names are used in this article, to protect their privacy.
Judge Carla Brown stands in the middle of her courtroom this Thursday afternoon. She’s smiling and calling defendants by name, asking about their health, their families, and their general well-being.
Interestingly, the defendants are smiling back at the judge, catching her up on their goings-on over the past month, and even cracking jokes now and then. In courtroom 2D in the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center, there’s something happening. And it’s working.
“We call our veterans’ court here in Gwinnett ‘VIP court,’ because that’s exactly who we’re dealing with: VIPs. We owe our veterans a great deal of gratitude,” Gwinnett’s Solicitor-General Rosanna Szabo said at the beginning of the veterans’ court session on Thursday, Nov. 9. Gwinnett’s VIP (Veterans Intervention Program) court is not like any other such program in the country. “We’ve been doing this for about eighteen months now, with the first session held last June,” Brown said. “It’s changing all the time; as we learn, we make improvements.”
The November 9 session was a special one, as nine veterans graduated from the intervention program. Some had issues with drugs and/or alcohol. Others were battling domestic violence. Some were attempting to settle housing matters. Still, others had been nearly crippled by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the host of problems that spin off of that malady. What they all had in common was that they were veterans, and their legal issues were rooted in the painful aftermath of war. But instead of cycling these people in and out of the justice system time and again, Judge Brown and some colleagues had a better idea. Why not help these people who have served (or who are still serving) this country, by assisting them to address the obstacles that are hindering successful reentry into civilian society?
“I am passionate about serving our veterans. My dad was a vet,” Brown said, adding that she wore a POW/MIA bracelet for 15 years until the remains of a Vietnam vet and family friend were finally found. “We were never taught about the Vietnam War in school, so I did my research. Sadly, all vets returning home are ignored; Vietnam vets were treated very badly.”
The idea for an intervention/accountability court was a good one, a necessary one, and with this first graduating class, it’s proven to be a successful one. To celebrate both Veterans Day and the nine graduates of the program, several local and state VIPs were on hand Thursday to applaud the hard work of both the graduating vets as well as those still in the program. Congressman Jody Hice and Mrs. Georgia, Melanie Caceres, were just two of the respected public figures who paid their respects at last month’s ceremony.
Clark, a Vietnam veteran, said, “When I first came here, no one would talk to me. I mean, young people don’t talk to old people, so I knew I had to start talking to people first. Before coming (to VIP court), my life consisted of going to the Veterans Administration (VA), then coming home and having a couple of drinks. That’s how I got into trouble. But before long, I learned that the key is service to others. If you’re helping someone else, you feel better about yourself.”
And Nick, a young three-tour veteran who still serves in the National Guard, courageously shared his story. “2015 was a bad year for me. Three of my friends committed suicide, and my girlfriend broke up with me.” Soon after, he lost yet another friend in a tragic motorcycle accident. “I needed help, but I didn’t know how to get it, so I began treating my problems with alcohol. In February 2016, I found myself in Gwinnett County. I don’t know why I was here, but I guess I had blacked out while driving, and I got a DUI. That’s how I met Judge Brown and was able to get into this program. In civilian court, I know they would have thrown the book at me, but here, we get help along with the sentence the judge hands down.” Nick was quick to say that Judge Brown is no pushover, but she is also fair. “She’ll tell you real quick if she thinks you’re lying or making excuses, and I’ve seen her send people to jail. But you can tell she’d rather help people in here rather than just send them off to jail.”
Today, Nick is happy to say that he’s getting his life together, and he’s even met a young woman. He added that last with a smile.
A program such as Gwinnett County’s VIP court is always changing, and can ever use help from the public. On the horizon is a website that includes all Gwinnett accountability courts and their 501(c)3 status. At that time, donors can help veterans in the program with monetary donations. Currently, according to Brown, mentors are desperately needed in the VIP Court program. “We could use veterans who are willing to mentor. If they have experience dealing with the VA, even better.”
For more information about veterans’ court, visit the Gwinnett County website at www.gwinnettcounty.com, and search “Veterans Intervention Program.”