Coming Home: Addiction

One of the CSC’s most notable success stories is the establishment of the Tulsa Veterans Treatment Court. Among the first in the nation, this special court docket targets veterans who have committed non-violent offenses and who suffer from addiction and substance abuse problems. Through a grant from the federal VA’s Supportive Services for Veteran Families program, the court also reaches out to homeless vets and their families to assist with housing support.

The community service council’s Jim Lyall, associate director and a Vietnam war veteran, and Carla Tanner, senior planner, work to help veterans transition back into civilian life after a traumatic deployment. photo by Brandon Scott.
The community service council’s Jim Lyall, associate director and a Vietnam war veteran, and Carla Tanner, senior planner, work to help veterans transition back into civilian life after a traumatic deployment.
photo by Brandon Scott.

“‘Leave No Veteran Behind and Honor Their Service’ is the Tulsa Vet Court motto,” says Ewing.

The Tulsa County Veterans Treatment Court first convened on Pearl Harbor Day in 2008 to divert veterans charged with criminal offenses from jail and prison and to restore their pride and personal honor.

“The criminal offense the veteran is charged with is often just a manifestation of the pain, anguish and torment that the veteran has been experiencing,” Ewing adds.

Treatment courts work in partnership with the Veterans Health Administration, military service organizations, veteran mentors and other community partners to help veterans heal, whether the pain is physical or mental.

Common misdemeanors and felonies brought up in the court include driving under the influence, assault and battery, domestic violence and drug addiction. These offenses often go hand-in-hand with gun charges.

“Not surprisingly, veterans are trained to carry their weapon on their person 24-7, so when they are arrested for drug or DUI charges, often the weapon is in their possession,” Ewing says.

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Criminal charges are not the only legal challenges veterans routinely face.

“Many of the veterans we work with also have family legal issues, such as divorce, child custody and child support issues,” Ewing says. “Housing or financial legal issues are also quite common. It is rare that a veteran has only the criminal case pending. Most of the time, veterans have multiple legal issues, including criminal, family and civil issues.”

Tulsa County Veterans Treatment Court is one of four national mentor courts providing leadership and training to other districts seeking to implement a similar docket.

In addition, “the veterans treatment court is expanding the mentor capacity to those who support the veterans as ‘battle buddies’ and advocates and [to those] who assist with other resources, such as housing and transportation.”

The court program – which has a 96 percent participant completion rate – forever changed the life of veteran Russell Whitehead. A native of small-town Oklahoma, Whitehead enlisted in the Army as a health care specialist and was sent to replace combat medics who had perished in an explosion in Iraq. After losing friends and several acquaintances during his first deployment, Whitehead returned to Oklahoma, but it was not a happy homecoming.

“Upon returning stateside, I began drinking again, but this time it was different,” Whitehead says. “It seemed as though I couldn’t drink enough. I couldn’t do anything enough to bring back those I lost, and it came to a point where I would have traded places with any of them, given the chance for them to live on and for me to have died in combat – a soldier’s death, an admirable way out of this life. I do not recall much from the first month or so home from deployment, due to my drinking. I was spiraling downward quickly.”

When Whitehead was given the opportunity to attend paramedic school, he said it made him more hopeful about his next deployment, which was right around the corner. Perhaps this time, he would be able to save more of his comrades. But when he submitted to a urinalysis test, he failed. He was subsequently court-martialed and spent 45 days in jail.

“I had lost the one thing in my life I had loved doing,” he says, “and worst of all, I failed my soldiers.”

Fast upon the heels of his release, Whitehead received his first DUI, followed quickly by APC (actual physical control) charges. He maintained his sobriety for six months before an encounter with his former comrades left him feeling isolated and hopeless. In quick succession, he earned his second and third DUIs. While filling out his paperwork to enter DUI court, he noticed an advertisement for the Veterans Treatment Court and quickly entered a plea.

The treatment program was intense. A bracelet was attached to Whitehead’s leg to continuously monitor his blood-alcohol level, and he participated in counseling sessions multiple times per week. He submitted to random urinalysis testing and mandatory Alcoholics Anoymous meetings. At first, he says, it was overwhelming, but eventually, he began to look forward to the routine. In addition, he was given chances to restore his dignity. When the May 20, 2013, tornado devastated Moore, Whitehead was allowed into the damage zone as a medical first responder. He also was allowed to travel home to spend time with his family after he lost his father to liver cancer.

“I was given respect and dignity in those days, two things I do not take lightly and will forever be grateful for,” he says.

Today, Whitehead participates in the court’s mentoring program while working as a mechanical designer for a contract engineering firm in Tulsa.

“I am now a changed man,” Whitehead says, “and I can give much of the credit to the people associated with the court. Let there be no mistake: Who you are is solely based on the decisions and path you choose in your life. My decision to change was my own, but without the wonderful people of the veterans treatment court, this path and these choices would have been hard-fought, if they were made at all.”