The war at home
BY GINNIE GRAHAM World Staff Writer
Sunday, May 02, 2010
8/12/10 at 10:12 AM
Some men stood at parade rest as they appeared before Tulsa Special Judge Sarah Day Smith.
Others leaned on their crutches or walkers or stood close to military attention.
The veterans are from six different wars and range widely in age. They also battle addictions leading to problems with their families, housing and brushes with the law.
The Veterans Treatment Court in Tulsa is among four in the country being considered as a model court by the National Drug Court Institute. Getting that distinction means a grant and visitors who want to start programs in other jurisdictions.
Smith said representatives from five states have observed court and gathered information. "So, we're already doing some mentoring," she said. "To get attention as a mentor court would be nice to put on our own resume and get some funding for it."
During the last docket session, Vietnam veteran Altorlee Stokes Jr. reported to Smith that he was progressing well in the fourth of the program's five phases. He spoke to court observers that day about his struggles.
"Our freedom is not free," Stokes said. "There is a price to pay, and some veterans pay with the remaining parts of their lives."
Raised in Sallisaw, Stokes spent two years in Vietnam with the U.S. Army and then another two years serving stateside.
"Needless to say, those two years took their toll, and I've struggled with the residuals of Vietnam," he said. "When I came back from Vietnam, I could not be around my family because I had become such a combatant."
Despite the family alienation, Stokes held steady employment mostly in computer processing and served as a youth mentor. He was a functioning alcoholic for 27 years — until he was diagnosed with diabetes — then he switched to other substances. Cocaine was his drug of choice.
"I was the loneliest guy you could imagine, but I was a very good soldier," Stokes said.
Stokes lived in Fort Smith, Ark., for many years, but a gang-related death of a young family member prompted him to move to Tulsa.
"I came to Tulsa as a homeless man," he said.
In 2006, at age 58, Stokes was charged with drug possession. It was the first time he had been arrested.
That charge started a revolving door between treatment centers and relapses. Eventually, a warrant was issued for not completing parts of his plea agreement, and that is what landed him in veterans court.
"Veterans court takes a holistic approach," he said. "My whole life is restructured around staying sober and dealing with the issues related to why I used (alcohol and drugs) in the first place. God will help bring all this back and deal with it. That journey back home can take a lifetime, but this is just one step for me."
After Stokes spoke, spectators applauded.
Presiding District Judge Thomas Thornbrugh, a Vietnam vet who earned a Bronze Star for his service, pledged his support to the veterans.
"I will do everything I can do to keep this program intact," Thornbrugh said. "We don't do enough (for veterans), and we need to do more. If you do your part, we'll do ours."
District Attorney Tim Harris said his office is dedicated to the program's success.
"They literally put their lives on the line for us," Harris said. "Once they come into the criminal justice system, they deserve to be looked at in a different way. We want to bring justice and hope to turn their lives around. We want to show some appreciation for what you've done."
The creation of the veterans court in December 2008 came after Smith observed a similar court in Buffalo, N.Y., and became convinced of its effectiveness.
"If you have a veteran, and that person can look to the left and the right and see participants who have been through the same experiences, it makes a difference in how that person feels and progresses in the program," Smith said.
Common underlying factors are post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury related to combat.
"They may be homeless or self-medicating through alcohol or drugs," Smith said. "Most will be honest about their use. There is no game-playing about that. Most will not ask you for help and are ashamed to be going through the criminal justice system."
Participants plead guilty to their charges and enter the program, which can take one to three years to complete and involves drugs screenings, community service, home visits and job training or employment. If they fail, the sentence passed at the time of the plea will be enacted.
"It's me or prison," Smith said.
Veterans organizations and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs help participants get benefits and services. About 90 percent of veterans in the program had not applied for eligible benefits.
Carolyn Hardin, executive director of the National Drug Institute Council, said 20 years of research shows treatment courts make a difference when using evidence-based best practices.
The model court decision will be made in May, but the courts being considered are functioning as the nation's most effective, she said.
"We want to see if it is having an impact on the justice system and courts and is beneficial to your community," Hardin said. "We are looking at accountability and public safety."
In addition to Tulsa and Buffalo, the other courts being considered are in San Jose, Calif., and Santa Anna, Calif.
Veterans court by the numbers
48: Current participants
10: Graduates from the program
2: Participants dropping the
program and entering prison
12 months: Minimum time to
complete the court’s program
50: Percent of participants
who do not qualify for health
care through the Veterans Health
318: Average number of arrests
of veterans in Tulsa County per
93: Percent of veterans arrested
who are male
41.2: Average age of veterans
20: Percent of Tulsa’s homeless
who are veterans
7: Tulsa’s rank in the nation for
percentage of veterans
8: Rank of Oklahoma as a home
Sources: Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office, U.S.
Census, Department of Veterans Affairs,
Ginnie Graham 581-8376
Altorlee Stokes Jr. sits outside of Iron Gate kitchen downtown, where he volunteers. Stokes, a Vietnam veteran, was arrested on a drug charge when he was 58 and credits Tulsa's Veterans Treatment Court with his recovery. ADAM WISNESKI / Tulsa World
Special Judge Sarah Day Smith helped create the Veterans Treatment Court in Tulsa. ADAM WISNESKI / Tulsa World
Matt Stiner is the Veterans Treatment Court coordinator in Tulsa. ADAM WISNESKI / Tulsa World
Altorlee Stokes Jr. helps clean the cafeteria at Iron Gate kitchen where he volunteers his time and talks with friends. Stokes, a Vietnam veteran, was arrested on a drug charge when he was 58 and credits the Veterans Treatment Court with his recovery. ADAM WISNESKI / Tulsa World