COLUMBIA CITY — Judge Douglas Fahl took a seat at the bench in the Whitley County Superior Court on Thursday, Oct. 29, and greeted the crowd of people waiting for him. Looking back at him from the gallery were a dozen or so men with one thing in common, the very thing that brought them there. They were all veterans.
The Thursday afternoon gathering is unlike the cases and lawsuits that usually fill the Superior Court — rather, it was playing host to the monthly meeting of the Veteran’s Treatment Court.
A major in the U.S. Army himself, Fahl is privy to the struggles that await veterans returning to civilian life.
“Knowing and having friends going through these problems and being in the military myself, I have seen guys change from someone who was an overachiever, hard-charging military person, nice person to someone who’s angry and struggling with depression and substance abuse,” Fahl said. “And having seen so many of my friends go through that, it really made me want to pursue this court.”
Data from the National Veterans Foundation shows that men and women coming home from combat are much more likely to abuse substances than civilians. In addition, mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), increase that likelihood.
“It’s really their struggles with adjusting to everyday life, while also having the stressors of all those mental health road blocks,” Cody Fry, the veteran treatment court coordinator, said. “Oftentimes, they don’t know how to work through them…and suppress it until they aren’t able to do it anymore.”
Aware of the high number of veterans in the area and the county’s proximity to the Veterans Administration Hospital, Fahl thought that bringing a treatment court for veterans to the area would be beneficial. After a more than two-year process, they began accepting participants in February of 2017.
Alongside Fahl is a team of volunteers who represent several agencies, including the Bowen Center and local law enforcement.
The program is what Fry called a “problem-solving court,” meaning that the court takes a different approach to certain crimes. As opposed to handing down convictions or jail sentences, these courts try to find the motivation or reasons behind the crime.
There are currently just more than a dozen participants in the program for Whitley County. Recently, according to Fahl, the program has opened up its services to veterans in both Huntington and Kosciusko counties. While they try their best to raise awareness for the program, the challenge appears to be finding the veterans who need their help.
“Right now, we ask at initial hearings if they have ever served in any branch of the military so we can at least screen them,” Fry said. “The one blowback is people don’t know what their veteran status is. Or oftentimes they won’t say that they’re a veteran because of the shame they have for getting into trouble.”
Once the veterans are identified and accepted, the program determines needs and best strategies to help them. Thus begins an intensive program consisting of three tracks of progress. The first track involves connecting with local resources, such as the VA hospital and substance abuse counseling, to build a strong support base. The second track expects the veterans to become active members in their recovery through not only program attendance but actual engagement in the process. The third track is meant to demonstrate the veterans’ commitment to their sobriety and law-abiding over the long term.
“Essentially, our goal is it will give them an opportunity to be successful in the long run,” Fry said. “We give them a specific amount of treatment based on their service or challenges with reintegration into civilian life, while also giving intense supervision for a period of time.”
In addition to their required attendance at drug and alcohol counseling and other treatments, the veterans are also subject to check-ins and random drug screenings from the court. The program, according to Fry, is expected to take between 12 and 18 months, but that each person’s process differs based on personal challenges, obstacles and goals.
Fahl is highly respected by the veterans, both for his military rank and his status as a judge. Despite the position of power, he does not talk down to the men or take on a reprimanding tone. Instead, he speaks conversationally with each of the veterans. He asks each veteran how they are doing, and encourages them to speak frankly about whatever troubles or triumphs are impacting them at the moment.
“What we’re looking at doing is getting to know the entire person,” Fahl said. “We deal with housing, we get to know what’s going on in their personal life and what’s prompting or triggering them to maybe relapse. We get to treat the whole person instead of just sending them to counseling and hoping that the rest of their life comes into place.”
Though conversational, Fahl remains firm. If a veteran is not completing the requirements of their specific track, Fahl reminds them of why they are there and the importance of the requirements. If need be, Fahl may inform someone that their timeline is being walked back and certain requirements may need to be done all over again. He draws upon his experiences as a major in the army to connect and motivate.
“I’m going to pat you on the back some days and I’m going to stick a boot up your butt other days,” Fahl said. “I try to frame it as this is a lot like basic training. It’s going to be miserable at times, but if you nug it out, you’ll have that great sense of accomplishment. If you can make it through basic training, you can make it through this program.”
The biggest obstacle Fahl and Fry have seen in their clients is the belief that asking for help is a sign of weakness.
“The mindset of a veteran in a lot of ways is ‘I’m gonna deal with this on my own. I don’t need help,’” Fahl said. “One of the biggest struggles is getting over embarrassment of asking for help. Once they truly recognize we’re all in this together, and it’s not a symbol of weakness or failure to ask for help, that’s the biggest hurdle.”
In the same session, though, Fahl makes a point of highlighting the veterans who were going above and beyond what’s required of them. Each of these successes merits a chance to draw a number from an old military helmet which coincides with a specific prize doled out by the program. Exceptional actions sometimes even merit an upgrade to the next track level of the program.
Every conversation ends with Fahl asking the individual if they need anything from the court and a positive takeaway to encourage them to keep pushing forward. The people in the gallery, without fail, applaud for everyone while the individual at the podium approaches the bench to shake Fahl’s hand and touch a button that says “HOO-AH,” the customary U.S. Army battle cry.
October’s session saw two gentlemen reach the end of their program journeys. They received thunderous applause and were displayed to the rest of the program participants as role models, people who were able to stare down the storm and come out on the other side. The graduates were also thankful, crediting the program and its team for turning their lives around and giving them a chance to start fresh.
“There’s different goals and outcomes for each veteran,” Fry said. “They realize how much better a life they can live being sober once they are comfortable going through treatment and not feeling ashamed or (thinking) that they have to take this on alone.”
Although many of the veterans who complete the program may see their criminal charges lowered or even dismissed, Fahl makes it clear that the program is not an easy out for anyone trying to dodge incarceration.
“It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card,” Fahl said. “This is a very long and intensive program, but it gives the vets who have served their country an opportunity to be treated as the whole person and hopefully, they may have charges reduced or dismissed, but we set them up for success. … What we want them to do is get that pride in themselves and get back into serving their community.”