Kathy Sweeney Investigates: The New Battlefield

Navy veteran Billy Williams went before a Butler County judge.
Navy veteran Billy Williams went before a Butler County judge.
Williams is participating in the SEMO Veterans Treatment Court, designed to help veterans already in the court system.
Williams is participating in the SEMO Veterans Treatment Court, designed to help veterans already in the court system.

POPLAR BLUFF, MO (KFVS) - In Poplar Bluff, local court leaders joined Veterans Administration officials in officially opening our nation's first rural Veterans treatment court program.

The SEMO Veterans Treatment Court officially kicked off Wednesday morning with a celebration at the Butler County Courthouse.

The program is designed to help veterans already in the court system, whether they're behind bars or on probation.

While the ceremony marks the beginning of the program, it actually started quietly back in September.

On a Wednesday morning in mid-October, I watched as three men made their way into a Butler County courtroom.

This isn't the first time Billy Williams faced a judge. But, weeks before this court date, Williams had a surprise visitor as he sat in the Cape County jail.

"At first, I thought he was kidding. But, he was pretty serious about it," Williams recalled.

He is talking about Gary Helle, a Veterans Justice Outreach specialist. Helle tracked down Williams, a Navy veteran, and did something unexpected.

"Well it was really a surprise to me because I had no idea they was gonna actually try to help me in jail," Williams said. "I'd never had that before."

"I could tell that he really felt like he was out of options," Helle added.

Helle offered Williams a chance to break the cycle of addiction that led to his arrest, through a new treatment court designed specifically for veterans like him.

"He just had a look of joy on his face, he really did, and excitement," Helle remembered.

Getting veterans this kind of help took a full year of planning. Jeanne Huffman is the Treatment Court Administrator for the 36th Judicial Circuit. She met with the VA to pitch a program similar to other treatment courts, but with one very important difference. They would offer both substance abuse and mental health services through the VA Hospital in Poplar Bluff.

"I think the most unique difference is we are working with veterans that are coming back specifically with war issues," Huffman said.

"If we felt that prison was the appropriate response to what they've done in their lives, they wouldn't be here in the first place," said Drug Court Commissioner, Judge Phillip Britt.

Britt joins Helle and Huffman on the Veterans Treatment Court team, along with Probation Officer Jeff Wright, and Bailiff Dennis Lyons.

Before meeting with vets face to face, the team goes through each case, knowing oftentimes a veteran's trouble with the law and substance abuse can be traced back to their service.

Williams says, this is the first time he's seen the court system work for, and not against him.

"I'm 57, ok, so I've never seen this," he said.

"The ones who are successful always at some point recognize that they're not trying to take something away from me," Judge Britt said. "They're trying to give me something, and that's sobriety."

While this court is not punishment-oriented, veterans are still held accountable. Dennis Lyons is the court's tracker, paying participants unexpected visits to make sure they're clean and on the right track.

"Maybe if I don't get around to see someone in the other programs for a day or two or three," Lyons said. "They'll call me and want to know what's going on. And if I don't hear from somebody, that's the person I probably need to go see. They've got a problem."

One month into the 18 month program, Billy Williams dares to see a brighter future.

"If any vets do see this, I'm telling the truth. This is really real and it would be great for them to have the opportunity to get into this. I'd like to see them do it," he said.

Right now, the SEMO Veterans Treatment Court serves Butler, Wayne, Carter, Ripley, Dunklin, and Stoddard counties.

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