Turnabout: Veterans Court offers opportunity to rebuild

By Paul Janczewski

Legal News

Dwayne Cherry, known affectionately to friends and family as Wayne, was close to graduating cum laude from Michigan State University with a degree in political science and pre-law when the 9/11 attacks occurred on American soil.

He expressed his grief by sending President George W. Bush an e-mail several days later, saying he, too, was deeply shocked by this attack and wished Bush luck in binding the nation's wounds and finding those responsible.

But he did something to also prove his citizenship by joining the military soon after graduating, and his five years in the Army serving as a counter-intelligence agent with a tour in Afghanistan earned him a total of 14 achievement medals and commendations. When he was discharged honorably, he worked at basically the same job for private companies, even returning to Afghanistan.

Later, he married, had a lovely daughter, and was a person others admired. But he was secretly suffering in silence and paying a deadly price for what he saw in combat. Wayne was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In January 2012, it got to be too much, and Wayne took his life. He was 31 years old.

His mother Debbie Cherry, was a secretary for Genesee County Probate Judge Jennie Barkey, and she filled the judge with stories of other military members suffering with PTSD. Armed with this resolve, Barkey decided to form a Veterans Treatment Court, and her vision became a reality in January 2013, after the State Court Administrator's Office approved it and Genesee County Circuit Court Chief Judge Richard Yuille signed it into existence.

And the Veterans Court in Genesee County was dedicated in honor of Dwayne Cherry. During the dedication ceremony, Barkey said through Debbie Cherry's grief "she has taught me about the many, many, many members of our military past and present who also suffer from this affliction.

"Today is the day we try to stop it from happening," Barkey said. "This program is designed not to enable, but to put the individuals in a position to help themselves by giving them no other option but to do so."

The Veterans Court in Genesee County was modeled after the first known such court, in Buffalo, N.Y. There are several others across Michigan.

Basically, the Vets Court is based on 10 key components to use alcohol and drug treatment and mental health services within the justice system. It focuses on a non-adversarial approach where prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges monitor those convicted of misdemeanor or felonies within a strict program where rehabilitation is emphasized.

Barkey said some veterans who have committed a crime are allowed to plead guilty and sign a contract to enter Veterans Court for a one-year period. They are given a strict individualized program, and deal with a mentor, who is also a military person, preferably from the same branch. If they are successful, the underlying conviction is dismissed. If they are kicked out of the program, the person returns to their original court and judge for sometimes harsh sentencing, often at the top of the guidelines.

"Every individual that participates in this program has a mentor because one thing I've learned is that vets talk to vets," Barkey said.

The Veterans Court is supported by the Veterans Affairs offices in Saginaw and Ann Arbor, and every morning Barkey gets a list of veterans who are in the Genesee County Jail. Those inmates then are interviewed by VA officials to determine if they qualify for the program. Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton also has embraced the program by serving as a gatekeeper for the veterans who have pleaded guilty to misdemeanors or non-violent felonies.

But not all veterans who commit a crime are eligible for the Veterans Court.

"It has to be a crime that is a direct result of a disability they developed as a result of their service," Barkey said. "And the vast majority of these (honorably discharged) people have never previously had a crime, but their problems start after they get out of service."

The problems stem not only from physical injuries they may have suffered, but also the mental trauma they have experienced.

"I read the reports, and I see what they saw in combat, and it gets to me too," she said.

Barkey said these vets have seen friends killed and maimed, and then must re-enter civilian life with little more than a "thank you" and an edict to now "get on with your life."

"Well, the problem is, they just can't get on with life after going through that," Barkey said.

Once admitted to the Veterans Court, participants sign a contract after pleading guilty and enter a yearlong program with goals, a rehab plan, and frequent meetings with their mentors.

So far, 15 people, including one female, have been admitted to Veterans Court. Barkey said she's had to remove several who were either unable or unwilling to make the commitment to adhere to program guidelines.

Two attorneys have volunteered their time to serve as defense counsel for the veterans. They are Robert Swartwood, a retired Army colonel and Iraq war vet, and Jeff Skinner, a Vietnam veteran. Attorney Major White backs up Skinner when he is not available. Genesee County 67th District Court Judge David Goggins and Genesee County 68th District Court Judge Nathaniel Perry III also assist Barkey.

Although Veterans Court is held every Thursday, some participants have earned the right to appear every two weeks after showing progress. During one recent session, Barkey displayed her normal brand of tough love, praising some, admonishing others, and giving ultimatums to those who were performing less than satisfactory while urging them to comply.

"They know I don't play games," Barkey said.

Command Sergeant Stuart Smith, in the Army Reserves, is a mentor who knows how to help. He's served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and when asked to participate in the program said, "it was an easy yes." He said it's been "extremely rewarding," but noted that "the program is not easy."

He mentors Terrence Tevis, 42, an Army vet who returned from overseas and began experiencing substance abuse problems. Tevis blames his drug and alcohol problems on things he witnessed in combat.

"I started becoming someone I wasn't before," Tevis said.

He used substances to "cope" with his problems, but said this court program, and the intervention with Smith, has turned his life around.

"I just want to be a good, productive citizen for the future," said Tevis, whose children have been very supportive. "This has been a life saver, and an eye-opener."

Tevis said the support system from the court is what "makes this program great." He's also started, on his own, a support group for veterans with alcohol problems.

"It's a lot of hard work but it keeps me out of trouble and keeps me focused," Tevis said. "I tell my group they're helping me just as much as I help them."

He also credits Debbie Cherry for her efforts in trying to save people like him.

"This program would never have gotten started without her," he said, offering his condolences for her own loss. "I just want her to know that with people like myself, she'll always have a son."

Terry Marshall, 65, a former U.S. Army sergeant in Vietnam, also serves as a mentor and struggled with PTSD after returning home from service in Southeast Asia. When Marshall learned of the Genesee program, he knew it would be a good way to give back to the community.

Marshall mentors Shane Millay, 33, who lost his left arm in Iraq during a rocket-propelled grenade attack. Millay and Tevis were the first two to begin the program, and both are "doing great," according to Barkey and their mentors.

Millay began drinking heavily when he returned and was arrested for drunken driving.

"I'd drink almost every day when I got out to help me forget about what happened there," he said.

Now, with the help he receives from people who can relate to his experiences, Millay said he has progressed to the point that he only has to appear once every two weeks.

"This young man lost an arm, and that's a pretty severe price to pay," Marshall said of Millay. "They should not be forgotten, and they should be supported."

Barkey said it's too early to evaluate the results from the program, but she is encouraged by the early returns.

"The motivation is there for them," she said. "We try."

Published: Thu, Sep 26, 2013