Over the past decade, veterans treatment courts have transformed the way the justice system identifies, assesses, and responds to veterans. One of the keys to veterans treatment court’s success has been the inclusion of veterans from the community who serve as mentors to their fellow veterans in crisis.
The first veterans treatment court was launched in 2008 in Buffalo, New York. One of the inspirations for the innovative program was an interaction Buffalo judge Robert Russell witnessed between a veteran defendant on his mental health court docket and two veterans on his staff. Judge Russell had been trying to get the veteran to accept the help but with little success. In a moment of exasperation, he asked the two veterans on his team to talk to the individual, “vet to vet”. He thought maybe they could reach him. The veterans spoke in the hall for over an hour and when Judge Russell had the man reappear before him, the once unresponsive veteran looked him in the eyes, stood a little taller- perhaps stood a little prouder – and asserted he would graciously accept assistance.
The camaraderie that exists between the men and women who have served in the armed forces is profound. Veterans treatment courts transform this bond into one of healing and empowerment. For many veterans, it is difficult to ask for or accept help. After all, we are trained to exhibit stoicism. Bringing veterans from the community into the courtroom to serve as volunteer mentors helps break down these barriers and creates an environment that fosters both treatment and accountability. Pairing a veteran that is justice-involved with a mentor gives both parties the chance to harness and revisit the ingrained values of duty, honor, and selflessness. In serving as mentors, volunteer veterans find a sense of fulfillment that can only be achieved when one veteran comes to the aid of another. Perhaps even more significant, mentors restore purpose and hope.
It is important to note that the mentor relationship in veterans treatment court is not a part of criminogenic programming and clinical treatment, though it can most certainly have therapeutic effects. In addition to providing camaraderie and moral support, a mentor can assist with referrals to housing, employment, education, and transportation assets. For example, a mentor can assist a mentee in connecting her or him with services available at the local, state, and federal levels such as contesting a discharge status or applying for a disability compensation claim.
A few years ago, the Community Mental Health Journal published one of the first studies of veterans treatment courts and concluded that participating veterans experienced significant improvement with depression, PTSD, and substance use, as well as with critical social issues including housing, emotional well-being, relationships, and overall daily level of functioning. The study further concluded that veterans who receive trauma-specific treatment and mentoring from fellow veterans not only experienced better clinical outcomes, they reported feeling more socially connected.
In 2015, Justice For Vets launched the National Mentor Corps to provide formalized training for volunteer veterans working in veterans treatment court. This initiative has helped train over a thousand volunteer veteran mentors across the nation. This year, with support from the Bureau of Justice Assistance and in an ongoing effort to enhance and standardize Mentor Professional Development, Justice For Vets will conduct twenty nationwide two-day mentor boot camps. This July, we will once again convene a mentor boot camp during the National Association of Drug Court Professionals annual conference.
To further reach veteran mentors, Justice For Vets has partnered with PsychArmor Institute to develop online training. These dynamic training modules are expected to be released this summer.
National Mentor Month is a tremendous opportunity to acknowledge all of the incredible mentors across this nation who are making an impact on the lives of so many. At Justice For Vets, it is the ideal time to renew our promise to the dedicated women and men serving in the national mentor corps: we will continue to provide you with the training and resources you need to engage, encourage and empower your fellow veterans.
Scott Tirocchi is a 21 year veteran of the U.S. Army Reserves and the Rhode Island Army National Guard. He is a licensed professional counselor and currently serves as the director of Justice For Vets, a division of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. For more information, go to www.justiceforvets.org.