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Tuesday, December 11, 2018

He’s on their side

Judge of Greenwood Veterans Court pays tribute to vets

By Marianne Coil

Greenwood City Court Judge Lewis Gregory makes one thing clear. If a military veteran on probation in city court flunks a drug test, he or she will spend three or four days in jail.

But the judge who implemented a Veterans Court in Johnson County is dedicated to giving special consideration to veterans who struggle with depression, explosive anger, substance abuse and suicidal ideation.

“These were good, decent people when they went off to war, and they came back damaged,” Gregory said. They’re not like the town drunk ‘hammered’ on Saturday night.”

The city court has jurisdiction throughout Johnson County over all kinds of misdemeanor cases, such as drug possession, drunken driving, theft, public disturbances and traffic violations.

On the bench for 23 years, Gregory had observed that soldiers charged with misdemeanors were in “the revolving door of justice” as they kept repeating cycles of arrest. The judge realized treatment programs for addictions and mental health issues should be a sentencing option.

“I saw very quickly that this was needed,” he said.

Now in operation for almost seven years, the Veterans Court paid tribute to its clientele this week with a special event that included the release of a new video about the court.

Judge Lewis Gregory. (Submitted photo)

Trauma while touring

A case that stands out in Gregory’s mind is the example of a senior non-commissioned officer (NCO) who’d done six tours in the Middle East. The first five were “fairly routine,” but the sixth was horrific.

First, the veteran was riding in an armored vehicle that hit an explosive device. Almost everyone was killed, except him, the judge said. Later, on two occasions, a sniper killed one of the soldier’s close friends.

And then one day, troops observed a child with an improvised explosive device (IED) strapped to him. Not more than 6 or 7 years old, the boy started walking toward the soldiers, who begged him to stop. Yet the child drew closer, and the senior NCO had to shoot to kill.

Upon returning home, the veteran wound up being arrested after a domestic dispute with a girlfriend.

“My impression of him was that he knew he had some problems,” the judge said, adding that the veteran completed the treatment program and has never returned to city court. Gregory said he sets an informal tone in speaking with the accused. “It’s not the typical dialogue that occurs between a judge and a defendant.”

On the same team

The judge tells the veteran that everyone in the courtroom is on the same team, “right up to the point you tell us we’re not on the same side.”

Back in 2011, the judge discovered during the court’s planning phase that, unlike most defendants, the veterans are happy to be there. He noticed while studying a court in Buffalo, NY, that veterans were smiling, not because of indifference to their situation, but out of relief they were getting help.

The joy of helping is what keeps Gregory in his line of work. Although maybe a quarter to one-half of the probationers wash out of the treatment program and finish sentences in jail, the elation everyone feels on a probationer’s graduation day makes it all worthwhile.

Local VFW and American Legion posts support the efforts of Veterans Court. From left, Judge Lewis Gregory, Greenwood VFW Post 5864 Jr. Vice Commander Sherri Jones, American Legion Post 252 Commander Ken Hall and Veterans Court Manager Brandon Pettijohn. (Photo by Nicole Davis.)

The judge oversees both the Veterans and Recovery courts, the latter of which handles civilian offenders. He said without exposure to the optimism each court thrives on, he probably wouldn’t still be on the bench.

“I gotta tell you – You want to see some light. You want to see rehabilitation.”

The process of making over a veteran’s life begins upon sentencing. The judge suspends the sentence and orders the defendant into probation under a supervised treatment plan. The probation officer, the case manager and an outreach worker from the Veterans Administration all play roles in placing personnel into counseling, peer mentoring and medical treatment, if necessary.

Hope for veterans

For example, an external non-profit, Warrior’s Hope, is an official peer mentor for the court, and the probationer brings a form for sign-off to demonstrate that he or she attended the required meeting, according to Loren Minnix, president and founder of Warrior’s Hope, a Bible-based non-denominational ministry in Greenwood.

Since the court’s inception, the group has assisted some 25 to 30 probationers, Minnix said. “A few continue to attend meetings long after their probations have ended, and some will call to say, ‘Just wanted to let you know I’m doing great.’”

Loren Minnix is president and founder of Warrior’s Hope, a biblically-based ministry located in Greenwood. (Photo by Nicole Davis.)

The Veterans Court gives its clients “hope that there’s something beyond the lifestyle they’ve been living,” he said. Veterans are able to integrate back into society and have a chance to hold down a job.

“Anytime that somebody’s life gets straightened out, gets a new direction, it’s a benefit to the community,” Minnix said.

Treatment through the Veterans Court is not a “get-out-of-jail-free card,” Minnix said. Offenders are punished for breaking the rules of the program. “They pay dearly.”

In fact, veterans must see the judge every week during the first three months of treatment, and the probation officer every week for the first three to six months, and then every two weeks thereafter, Gregory said.

His weekly status hearings enable him to adjust a program based on the probation director’s recommendations, and to waive certain fees, for example, a driver’s license reinstatement fee, which many cannot afford.

Random drug testing is done twice weekly for the first three months, and veterans are assigned to a color group for purposes of notification. Probationers must call a recorded line by 6 a.m. to hear whether their color group, for example, blue, is expected to report for drug testing that morning by 7:30 a.m.

A positive result means a few days in jail, which count toward fulfillment of the sentence, Gregory said.

When each term of probation is completed, the court holds an informal ceremony that family and friends are invited to, and the veteran’s transformation is obvious. When they first appear in court, many are “physically dirty,” Gregory said. But on graduation day, “They look like my children.”