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Veterans Court Helps Texas Vets Stay Out Of Prison

Lauren Silverman
Keith McDonald speaks with Judge Carr at Veterans Court in Tarrant County.

This story is the third in KERA's series on veterans, part of the public media initiative "Veterans Coming Home."

This isn't your typical courtroom. People are laughing, smiling, even joking around. Dressed in suits and buttoned-up shirts, dozens of veterans squeeze into the wooden benches. There’s a sense of camaraderie in Tarrant County’s Veterans' Court.  

The first veterans court in Texas opened in 2009. Today there are four in North Texas.

Credit Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney's Office.
Veterans in the Tarrant County Veteran's Court Diversion Program meet with Judge Carr in the Tim Curry Criminal Justice Center in Fort Worth.

These courts offer hope to military servicemen and women who may be struggling with post-traumatic stress, physical disability, and drug and alcohol addiction.

A Chance To Keep Fighting

Keith McDonald, who’s 37, served ten years in the Army. He joined three weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“My longest [deployment] and the one that really affected me the most was my deployment to Iraq in 2006, during the surge,” McDonald says.

“We were in combat pretty much every day. Bullets mortars, rockets, IEDs. It really takes a toll on somebody; they prep you to go kill people, but they don’t prep you to deal with it when you come home.”

When McDonald came home, he had PTSD, and started using drugs. His wife left him with their child. He entered a realm of depression. Then, he picked up several drug charges.

“I lost focus,” McDonald says. “I didn’t know who I was, and it was tough. I don’t wish that upon anybody.”

His lawyer, also a veteran, helped him apply for the Veterans Diversion Program. And instead of doing time in prison, he’s spent the last six months in counseling, taking drug intervention classes. He's in school to become a chemical dependency counselor in Abilene, where he lives.

“This program gives you an opportunity to work on yourself, and they’ll take care of the legal problems. And, right now, I’m the best that I’ve ever been.”

Returning Home

Credit Lauren Silverman / KERA News
Andrew Rodriguez, 27, successfully completed the Tarrant County Veterans' Court Program. He's now a full-time student.

More than 130 combat veterans have been admitted to the little-known Veterans Diversion Program. Judge Brent Carr has helped the majority of them -- 86 percent -- return to the community.

Andrew Rodriguez, 27, is one of the program's graduates.

“I joined the Marine Corps when I was 17 years old and did four tours overseas,” he says, sitting in the break room at his job in north Fort Worth.

Rodriguez says it’s been tough since he left the Marines, and later the Army reserves.

“I got into trouble at home, the charge was assault, bodily injury to a family member,” he says. “I wasn’t [in the] right mind. I didn’t want to hurt my mother.”

Rodriguez, who’d never been in trouble before, ended up in jail. It was there that he was served his divorce papers.

“I just wanted to be alone,” Rodriguez remembers. “But my mom, the person I hurt is the one that looked for the help, and they welcomed me in.”

Rodriguez is a first time college student, and wants to get his associates degree in welding.

Credit Doualy Xaykaothao / KERA News
Judge Brent Carr runs the Tarrant County Veteran's Court.

Behind The Safety Net  

Resources like job fairs and counseling are part of what makes the program successful. Judge Carr says so are the penalties for stepping out of line.

“You miss a meeting [and] that should get a swift response," he says, "We have a lot of sanctions at our disposal to corral someone so they don’t break into a trend of non-compliance.”

Early intervention, individualized treatment plans, rewards, sanctions. Think of the program as a counter-offensive against the challenges a veteran faces coming home.