Written by Todd DePastino

Veterans will talk with other veterans. Anyone who works with those who’ve served discovers that quickly.

Judge Robert Russell saw the bonds of service work magic one day in his Buffalo courtroom in 2007. A Vietnam veteran appeared before him for missing appointments and failing to keep in touch with his treatment team. The vet fixed his eyes to the floor, not responding to the Judge’s questioning.

Judge Douglas Fahl presides over Veterans Treatment Court

Judge Douglas Fahl, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Indiana National Guard, presides over VTC in Whitley County, Indiana (ING Sgt. Joshua Syberg)

Russell turned to two court employees, both Vietnam veterans, and asked them to talk to the man to see if they could get anything out of him.

An hour later, the man returned to the courtroom, chin up, back straight, eyes looking forward.

“Are you ready to accept the support and treatment offered by this court,” the Judge asked the man.

“Yes, sir,” the man responded in a steady voice.

That moment inspired Judge Russell to create the nation’s first Veterans Treatment Court (VTC), a program where offenders are matched with a team of fellow veterans who support and mentor them through the treatments they need and services they’ve earned.

Fourteen years later, there are over 600 VTCs nationwide, several in every state.

VTCs don’t adjudicate guilt or innocence. Instead of having their cases wind through traditional criminal courts, accused offenders voluntarily submit to the VTC’s treatment program and the pillars of support they offer. Each court has its own local rules, but most accept anyone who has served in any branch, regardless of discharge status. Any felony or misdemeanor charge will be considered, except for homicide and registerable sexual offenses.

The VTC focuses on addressing the veteran’s unmet clinical needs, usually through mental health and drug and alcohol counseling. The special element of VTC is the intense involvement of volunteer Veteran Mentors, who give non-clinical support to veteran participants.

Veteran Mentors are people who have served in the military themselves. They’ve been trained by the court and are prepared to serve as a resource to VTC participants, providing advice, guidance, and coaching. Mentors encourage and motivate. They help participants make progress through four 90-day phases toward their treatment goals. Above all, Mentors remind participants they are not alone.

Over 100,000 veterans have passed through various VTCs in the past fourteen years. The vast majority came into the program with mental health or substance abuse issues. Most make it through the year-long program and graduate at a ceremony with their Mentors at their sides.

Studies show that VTC graduates have better outcomes than those who go through the traditional criminal court system. They’re more likely to be employed and stably housed and less likely to end up back in court.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Veterans Treatment Court in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The program has seen remarkable success and graduated hundreds of veterans from its program.

Stephen J. Shaw in military uniform

The Veterans Treatment Court Mentor Coordinator Stephen J. Shaw (Courtesy Stephen J. Shaw )

Stephen J. Shaw became the court’s Mentor Coordinator in 2020. His job is to recruit, train, and assign Mentors to veteran offenders. Recruitment is always the hardest part.

“We try to match them up with the same branch of service, but it’s very difficult because we just don’t have enough people,” he says. “It’s a constant issue. It’s constant recruiting.”

Like so many other veterans, Shaw became a Mentor to support his brothers and sisters in arms. “I thought I could contribute something,” he says modestly.

Shaw himself served in the Marine Corps and then in the Pennsylvania National Guard, retiring after almost 25 years of service as a Command Sergeant Major (CSM).

That rank should tell you something about Shaw and his dedication to service. CSMs are the highest ranking enlisted members in the military, and there is only one per Army unit. The main job of the Command Sergeant Major is to listen and advise, problem solve and troubleshoot. They assess morale, clarify missions, and otherwise serve as the commander’s eyes, ears, and chief influencer among enlisted members.

Those skills come into play as Mentor in VTC. Mentors need to be conscientious and perceptive. They need to communicate clearly and keep the treatment goals and requirements front and center. They hold their Mentees accountable and, in return, help their charges access housing, benefits, and positive social networks.

If you’re a veteran with a desire to serve, consider becoming a Mentor in a VTC near you. If you live near Lancaster, you can reach Stephen Shaw at sstephensj@comcast.net or 717-808-3953

To learn more about Veterans Treatment Courts around the country, visit Justice for Vets at https://justiceforvets.org. To find courts in your state, search “Veterans Treatment Court” and your state’s name. You’ll find an official site like this one for Pennsylvania, with a list of court locations and contacts: https://www.pacourts.us/judicial-administration/court-programs/veterans-courts