Melinda Henneberger | Court program helps veterans battle through the darkness

December 4, 2013 

MELINDA  HENNEBERGER

Melinda Henneberger

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Former Marine Cpl. Eric Gonzales doesn’t remember much about the night last year he led police in Orange County, Calif., on a high-speed, 26-minute chase that ended when he threw his truck into reverse and crashed into the patrol car behind him.

When he finally took his foot off the gas, he was handcuffed and later charged with DUI, evading arrest, assault on a police officer and more.

Still in the Marine Corps at the time and living at Camp Pendleton, Gonzales’ first court appearance was brief; he argued with the judge and got himself ejected.

But then he finally listened to his counsel: “My lawyer recommended I go to veterans court” — one of a growing number of such programs that oversee criminal cases involving military veterans who were arrested at least partly because of an addiction or mental illness, most commonly depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

An average of 22 military veterans commit suicide every day in this country, perhaps the best measure of the mental health crisis among veterans. And 130 special courts for veterans in 40 states are tackling that problem.

The first one was started in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008, modeled on the drug courts that have significantly reduced recidivism rates by substituting treatment and other support programs for incarceration.

Gonzales, who served in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010, was facing a nine-year prison sentence, so he was eager to opt for oversight from Judge Wendy Lindley’s veterans court in Orange County. He “graduated” from the program in September.

On Monday, the 23-year-old stepped up to a podium in a ballroom at a Washington hotel and addressed a crowd of about 900 as the first speaker at the first national training conference for those who work in such courts.

Gonzales, a high school sports star from San Bernardino, had a college scholarship but persuaded his parents to sign the waiver that let him enlist at 17.

“I joined the greatest fighting force I could — the United States Marine Corps!” he said, to a big round of hoo-rahs from Marines in the crowd.

But while serving in Afghanistan, he saw the man who had been “like a father” to him blown up by an improvised explosive device. So once he was back home, Gonzales told the crowd, he began drinking heavily and was “shocked at the truth of the beast.” He skipped the specifics but said, “I had fallen off my white horse.”

Through the veterans court, he started to work on his problems instead of masking them: “I did mindfulness, PTSD and exposure therapy — which ... really do work, actually.”

After he spoke at the conference, a succession of big names did, too.

“He’s what it’s all about,” retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey said of Gonzales. “We’ve got this battle force that kept us safe since 9/11; now we’ve got to stay behind them.”

After the program, Gonzales’ former drug court parole officer, Bert Eitner, congratulated him.

During his first week in Afghanistan, Gonzales’ base was attacked by a suicide bomber; two Marines were killed. The later loss of his mentor, Sgt. Maj. Robert Cottle, who was killed by a 300-pound explosive device, was hard — as were orders from his superiors that prevented Gonzales from quickly retrieving the body.

“That’s what broke my mind,” he said.

After returning home in May 2010, “we’d only discuss when we were drunk who died.”

The veterans court doesn’t take men and women on active duty, Eitner said, “because there’s no point giving them all these services and then letting them go back to deployment.”

“If you mess up,” Gonzales said the judge told him, “you’re going to prison.”

Instead, he lived in a residential treatment center. He meditated, worked out, did cognitive therapy, underwent exposure therapy — in which he was taken back to his mentor’s death again and again — and attended every 12-step meeting he could.

When asked whether he was tested regularly for drugs and alcohol, Eitner and Gonzales burst out laughing. Six times a week by Eitner alone, Gonzales said, “even though I was already peeing for four other people.”

Since graduating from the program three months ago, he’s back in school, studying audio engineering and getting some work, while living with his parents and advocating for the program that he feels saved his life.

Gonzales’ problem and his progress are pretty typical of what Eitner sees, he said, in a program that has a recidivism rate of 3 percent.

“This guy,” Eitner said of his former charge, “was sent someplace no one should ever be sent, but that’s what we do to our kids because they’re good at it. And you can’t strap a gun on every day and have it not affect you.”

Melinda Henneberger is a Washington Post political writer and anchors the paper’s She the People blog. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.

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