Veterans Mentor Program, Court helping local vets return to civilian life

Published On: May 23 2013 12:50:08 AM CDT   Updated On: May 23 2013 12:30:33 PM CDT
LA CROSSE, Wis. -

For our soldiers returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, adjusting back to civilian life can be a big challenge.

Hundreds of thousands of them are believed to be living with traumatic brain injuries, post traumatic stress disorder, and other mental health issues.

Many will never get treatment on their own, and in some cases, their injury or illness leads them down a path of drugs, alcohol and even crime.

The La Crosse Area Veterans Mentor Program and Veterans Court are two separate entities, but they work hand in hand and their success depends on one another. Both have the goal of making sure no veteran is left behind.

Thirty-two-year-old "John" grew up in a military family, so it was a no-brainer for him to join the Army shortly after high school. We're not identifying him because he is still active military.

He volunteered for two overseas deployments, one to Iraq and one to Afghanistan within three months of each other. "It's one of the biggest addictions, no drug can top it, it's your family, it's a constant job, it's something that you can take a lot of pride in," said "John."

But with the pride comes the pain, the emotional scars so many soldiers carry long after combat. "Two weeks into the deployment, him and our other buddy get blown up to where they couldn't even identify the bodies," said John.

When John returned home from the back to back deployments, his life was spiraling out of control. "When you get out of the military, it's kind of, everything slows down, you start to get lost, people around you don't know what the hell to do.

John started drinking more and isolating himself to get rid of the pain, the guilt and the memories. He ended up with multiple OWI's and spent months in and out of jail. "I never drank out of excess, I just didn't care. I lost a divorce over it, almost lost my family, almost lost myself."

And it was a cycle that just kept repeating itself. John said, "it wasn't until I was half dead that somebody said 'you need help.'

He spent a little more than a year at the Tomah V.A. getting treatment. It was there and through the birth of his daughter that he started to get his life back on track. "She pushed me to relearn and retrain myself, not to be a civilian, but use all that discipline and focus that I was trained to do and focus it more towards loving and caring and trying to really own up to being a father."

The lawyers and judge involved with John's legal troubles agreed he was a good candidate for the newly-formed La Crosse Co. Veterans Court. He was accepted into the program.

"The veteran's court is really the last resort," said Judge Todd Bjerke, a veteran himself who runs the court.

"We're not trying to get their charges to go away, they need to be held accountable for what they did, but we want to make sure they're taken care of and they don't repeat that kind of behavior in the future endangering themselves or the public because of their inability to deal with those demons they carry inside them," said Bjerke.

The 12-18 month program has four phases: an orientation or basic training of sorts, developing a treatment plan, completing the treatment plan, and transitioning to exit out of the program.

Judge Bjerke said "that's the main goal here - to get them on a path to restore them where they were prior to having their military intervention creating PTSD or traumatic brain injury that they have to live with because of their service in combat."

But the specialty court wouldn't be able to function without the help of the La Crosse Area Veterans Mentor Program and vice versa. The program pairs a struggling veteran with a mentor who is also a vet. They try to intervene as early as possible so they can even prevent bad behavior before it happens.

"We try to match them up age-wise, branch wise so they know when they're sitting down talking with a fellow veteran, hey I've gone through that, I know what it's like," said the program's executive director Thom Downer.

The job of the mentor is basically to be a good listener and coach. "I figured it's a great way to give back to other veterans, not only that, but it's almost as if I'm still continuing my role as a medic helping out other soldiers," said 29-year-old "Steve" who is "John's" mentor.

"Steve" did two tours of duty in Iraq and understands what "John" is going through. "One of the hardest things I've done in life is transitioning back from military life to civilian life and some people do have a lot harder time with it, a lot more issues than others do and I've been in situations where I've seen how difficult this is," said "Steve."

"It's more than just talking about our problems, we already know what our problems are, it's one of the unspoken things that civilians don't understand because they don't know, they want to ask and they want to know," said "John."

"Steve" says "John" is a completely different person from when they first met. "He was dealing with a lot of issues and those are issues that they stay with you for life, but when you seek treatment, you learn ways to deal with those issues."

Thom said, "it's great to see a veteran succeed."

And now as John gets ready to graduate from Veteran's Court, and he and Steve prepare to go their separate ways, he's not only gained a new outlook on life, but a life-long brother in arms.

"John" is one of about eight people in the Veteran's Court and he'll be graduating within the next several months.

He's also been reaching out to help other veterans like he was helped with his own peer support program.

Right now, there's really a big need for more veteran mentors. You do have to be a military veteran who was honorably discharged, go through a training course, and it's all volunteer.

If you're interested, you can contact Thom Downer at  608-785-6420 or you can fill out an application online at lavmp.org.

So far in its 3 years, the program has helped almost 90 veterans. Less than 10% have made it to Veteran's Court.