Franklin County Court Offers Veterans Path To Better Life

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They are the people who have served our country and stumbled along the way - military veterans in the criminal justice system.

A Franklin County program is looking to provide the support many of these vets never got, and offer them a bridge to a better life.

It was a recent graduation, but there were no co-eds, caps or gowns. It was the first graduation at Veterans Court.

The journey to this day didn't take these grads through a classroom but through the courtroom of Judge Scott VanDerKarr.

VanDerKarr presides over the specialized docket known as the Franklin County Veterans Court.

"We found that yes, they have some special needs, some special needs that can be met by a separate court with separate support,” said VanDerKarr.

For some, those special needs take the form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. For others, it's a traumatic brain injury. For many, it's alcohol or drug dependency, or a crushing combination of all of the above.

Josh Darden went to war when he was 18, serving in Iraq and Somalia.

"A lot of them things that come with deployments and war, you bring them back home with you,” said Darden.

He says he received all sorts of training before shipping out. Coming home was a different story.

"They knew that we was coming back messed up in the head. Well, we wasn't messed up, but we just couldn't transition. It's the transition,” added Darden.

Five months after returning home, he was involved in a shooting and sentenced to eight years in prison. It was only after his sentence that he was diagnosed with PTSD and schizoaffective disorder.

Lori Vanzant was a Navy firefighter.

"I was having a real hard time keeping it together the last year, just real paranoid,” said Vanzant.

Her PTSD predated her military service because she was the driver in a car accident that killed her best friend. Undiagnosed and untreated, her issues stayed under the surface for years.

"PTSD is like throwing a pebble in the water and the ripples as your life goes on just get bigger and bigger, so your problems increase and that's what happened,” she explained.

Then, she was charged in back to back DUIs. Judge VanDerKarr now has her going to three Alcoholics Anonymous meetings a week.

Lori and Josh both found their way to Veterans Court. It's where they finally found counseling, connection to resources and other vets, and something else:

"Respect, because we're all somebody that did something against the law, but they treat us with respect because there was a time when we were serving and protecting,” said Vanzant.

VanDerKarr says the key to such breakthroughs is a team-based approach, with intensive supervision.

Andrea Boxill, who oversees Franklin County's Specialty Dockets, says there is a fallacy that all vets have access to benefits and help.

"If you have a dishonorable discharge or a less than honorable discharge, service provision to you is not going to come from the VA,” said Boxill.

Boxill estimates that's the case with 40 percent of the veterans in VanDerKarr's courtroom.

"By completing this program, we are going to vacate and dismiss this plea and you can file for expungement and it's off your record. And when that's off your record, you get access to housing, you get access to employment. It also helps you try to improve your discharge status with the Vets Service Commission or with the Federal Government,” she explained.

"They've paid a heavy price for all of us to have freedoms in this nation,” said Columbus City Councilmember, Hearcel Craig. “That's the least we could do."

On the recent graduation day, 16 veterans celebrated the turning of a painful page.

"It's kind of sad, in a way, that it takes a courtroom to help- you got to get into trouble to get help,” said Darden.

"You don't know it's a better way of life until you're kind of forced into it but it's better,” explained Vanzant.

Like their return from service, they know their work is not done. They still live by the military creed- leave no man behind… even those who've lost their way.

"It's like the mission's over with. What to do next? Go out in the world, and then get lost,
said Darden.

Veterans Court has now been operating for two years. In that time, they've accepted 80 veterans. Eighteen have successfully completed the program and eleven have returned to college.

The program is also touting financial savings for taxpayers in reduced jail nights, which have dropped by 86 percent.