Special court for veterans first of its kind in county

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After his March 2003 deployment to Iraq, Lance Cpl. Domitilo Ponce III faced psychological injuries within the confines of his home despite being far from the dangers of combat.

Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Ponce made a habit of thrill-seeking and eventually turned to self-medication. His drug and alcohol abuse led to several arrests in Travis County.

“I created an atmosphere of constant conflict, having to always be on your toes, having to be vigilant ... and having to engage in some form of fighting,” Ponce said.

At least 20 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD or other mental health issues. Coupled with substance abuse, service-related trauma prompted Travis County officials to consider adopting a veterans court program last year. In lieu of incarceration, veterans facing misdemeanor charges are diverted to treatment and counseling services.

Travis County held its first special veterans court session on Nov. 11, Veteran’s Day, making it the fifth Texas county to do so.

“Veterans have a unique set of needs that set them apart from citizens in general,” said Jackson Glass, the county’s veterans court manager. “They come out of the military so used to having a structure in their life, and when they’re released from the military, they’re missing that.”

Modeled after county drug courts, the Travis County veterans court only accepts nonviolent misdemeanor offenders, but Glass hopes the court can help veterans charged with felonies in the future. Until then, nonviolent misdemeanors — such as criminal trespass, first- and second-time DWI offenses and resisting arrest — are currently under review.

The court secured funding from the state and the Texas Veterans Commission. The court-ordered treatment plans are on a case-by-case basis, and Travis County’s program remains open to changes.

The federal Department of Veterans Affairs provides most of the services to veterans in the program. The agency conducts treatment for PTSD and other related disorders linked to combat experience with several counseling and housing services available.

“The more that is being learned about PTSD, the better the VA is in incorporating the best practices,” Glass said. “The understanding and treatment of PTSD is evolving.”

Upon completion of the program, the charges against the defendant will be dropped.

Nicholas Hawkins, president of the UT Student Veterans Association and a global policy studies graduate student, said a veterans court gives returning soldiers another resource to help readjust to civilian life.

“Sometimes you’re not completely knowledgeable of these changes until you come back to reintegrate,” he said. “[The programs] provide veterans with a second chance, with courts deciding how to better reintegrate them.”

Despite a hero’s welcome, Ponce did not consider himself a veteran. He said the celebratory tributes and parades on Veterans Day belong to Vietnam veterans who did not receive the same open embrace as he did. Ponce also said his struggle with PTSD is something less significant than the trauma Vietnam veterans suffered.

Unlike physical wounds, psychological conditions are “hidden injuries” that have gone unrecognized by veterans themselves, Glass said.

“[Veterans] don’t talk about the war. They don’t talk about their experiences,” said Travis County Constable Maria Canchola. “They’re taught and trained to ‘man up’ and not complain ... Many times, many of them lose the war at home.”

Ponce did not have a veterans court to help him after his arrests, but he hopes to volunteer as a mentor in the county’s court. It wasn’t until he sought help that the night sweats began to dwindle, he said.

“The thing that’s not expected is the aftermath,” he said.