What happens to military veterans when they leave the service? A lot of them actually end up in trouble with the law. But a new program in Collin County is looking to fix that.
There’s something ironic about being in the military. You sign up with the idea that you’ll be fighting for freedom. But a lot of people can’t actually handle it when they get some for themselves.
“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 know, you have very minimal bills. Then all the sudden, you leave the military, where there’s nobody telling you when to wake up in the morning, nobody to tell you what to do, and so you’re kinda, through that transition period, you’re lost,” says Collin County Judge John Roach.
And when veterans get a little too lost, they frequently find themselves standing before a magistrate like Roach. He served eight years in the Marine Corps. And with that bedrock under his legal career, he learned two things about veterans in the criminal justice system.
“Sometimes veterans need to be incarcerated,” Roach says.
And “The criminal justice system just is not equipped to handle the specific and specialized issues that face veterans,” he says.
“They come back and the have issues – PTSD, traumatic brain injury, hyperanxiety, anger issues, stemming from their military service,” Roach says.
See, that’s the thing – a lot of recruits don’t come back from military service the same people they went in as. That’s because a lot of recruits, like Judge Roach, sign up right out of high school and walk directly into a rigidly controlled environment where their more aggressive impulses are often rewarded. Then they leave and they’re expected to operate their lives on the outside without ever having been taught how to do that.
Brennan Rivera-Jones also signed up for the Marine Corps right out of high school.
“People can get out and we have people, mid-20s, late-20s, early 30s who don’t know how to open a bank account,” Rivera-Jones says.
Today Rivera-Jones works with Judge Roach on Collin County’s Veterans Court. She’s also the architect of the county’s VALOR program – which essentially is the user’s manual incarcerated vets need to survive a world where they need to understand bills and job interviews and relationships.
Basic things – It is those basic, foundational things that people won’t ask for help – especially veterans – won’t ask for help on, or questions about.
VALOR is a program developed and operated by veterans for incarcerated veterans in Collin County. It 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. There are soft skills classes for better communication, courses on financial literacy and workshops on anger management. All blanketed by strict privacy laws and 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, you want people to acknowledge that you’re fearless and, you know, you don’t have weaknesses,”Rivera-Jones says.
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 was in the intel field so I had a very high security clearance,” Rivera-Jones 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.”
The VALOR program is the first of its kind in Texas, to integrate therapy and reintroduction services to veterans caught up in the criminal justice system. And 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.
“So it wasn’t until these individuals from the outside, from the communities, from the other states, from the nation’s capital started saying, ‘Hey we’re looking at you, we’re going to be keeping in touch, we’ve got eyes on. Let us know the progress status,'” Rivera-Jones says.
For the moment, VALOR’s capacity tops out at 15 vets. Judge Roach says the program’s size is likely to double in 2019.