'Sometimes Veterans Need to be Incarcerated.' But a New Collin County Program is Working on That
Collin County Judge John Roach spent eight years in the U.S. Marine Corps. Like a lot of veterans, he signed up right out of high school.
Actually, in his case, he was on the way to basic training mere hours after he got his diploma.
But fresh-out-of-school signups are by no means uncommon. And neither, he says, are the problems that can lead to once time of service is up.
" If you stay in the military long enough, in its rigid structure, you’re told when to get up in the morning, what time you eat, where the chow hall is. Your barracks are paid for, your meals are paid for, you have very minimal bills."
And then enlistment is up, and all that's out there is the big wide world that vets are expected to just know how to navigate on their own. But a lot of them don't know how to do that, he says. They don't know what being an independent adult is like because they've never been independent adults.
So for a lot of vets, the story gets sadder. They can easily find themselves standing before a magistrate like Roach, who need to "get their attention" by throwing them in jail.
"Sometimes veterans need to be incarcerated," he says. And that's because the criminal justice system just is not equipped to handle the specific and specialized issues that face veterans -- issues like PTSD, traumatic brain injury, hyperanxiety, and anger issues, stemming from military service, he says.
Keep in mind, in the military, especially in more conflict-centric jobs, aggressive impulses and "creative" ways to overcome threats and problems can get you a medal. But those impulses on the outside can get you sued and land you in a jail cell.
Which is why Collin County has launched the VALOR program. VALOR (Veterans Accessing Lifelong Opportunities for Rehabilitation) is run by vets for (incarcerated) vets to teach them how to cope with the life skills that most adults take for granted -- Things like learning how to have a healthy fight with a spouse or how to solve a problem by talking it out, or how to be patient in traffic, rather than driving over the median in an attempt to solve the problem of being stuck.
Or even something simpler.
"People can get out and we have people, mid-20s, late-20s, early 30s who don’t know how to open a bank
account," says Brennan Rivera-Jones. Rivera-Jones, was another fresh-from-high-school Marine. She worked in intelligence and served in the Corps for 12 years.
Today she works with Judge Roach on Collin County’s Veterans Court and is the architect of the VALOR program. And Roach says the main reason that it's all military vets treating military vets is because only vets really know what people in the military have been through.
"You can't pull something on a vet," Roach says. And that's especially true for anyone trying to con a vet that they've served. "They'll see right through."
So VALOR uses a combination of military discipline and life skills classes – from learning how to have a healthy fight with a spouse to art and music classes meant to tap into more thoughtful creativity; from soft skills classes for better communication and anger management to courses on financial literacy. All designed to teach vets how to navigate a world they need to live in on their own.
Which Rivera-Jones says doesn’t always come easy.
"When you’ve grown up in that in your adult life, you’re already in a culture where you want to be unstoppable," she says. "You want people to acknowledge that you’re fearless and, you know, you don’t have weaknesses."
That ego, she says, is what gets a lot of people in trouble in the outside world, where they don’t know how to ask for help. Then again, it’s not just ego that makes a lot of servicepeople afraid to go see the chaplain or a psychiatrist.
"I had a very high security clearance," she says. "And it was very scary and it was very real that with such a high level of security clearance, if you had any kind of mental health concerns, your clearance could be pulled. Well if my clearance was pulled, there goes my entire job."
Rivera-Jones says that even before it officially launched in November, VALOR already garnered the attentions of healthcare professionals in the private and government sectors who heard what was coming and thought Collin County might have just found the approach they’ve been looking for to deal with the turnstiles veterans often find themselves on. She says private and government agencies have "eyes on" to see how VALOR will work in helping to acclimate vets to the outside world.
VALOR felony participation is up to 24 months. Misdemeanor participation: Class A is up to 1 year; Class B is up to 180 days.
The program currently serves about 15 vets at a time. Roach says the size could double in 2019.