mental health

Veterans Treatment Court, ‘Hidden Gem' of Judicial System, Celebrates Milestone

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“I was a literal mess.”

That was the realization made by Francisco Chavez when he hit rock bottom.

The retired US Marine sat in Courtroom 17 at the Superior Court of California in downtown San Diego. It’s where he successfully walked out the doors of the Veterans Treatment Court in 2019.

“It’s the best medicine for the kind of disease that I have,” he said from behind a face mask.

Chavez suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from his time in the Marine Corps. He enlisted less than a year before 9/11 and spent 10 months in Iraq. He said a quick exit from the Marine lifestyle didn’t help.

“I didn’t fit well into civilian life when I first got back,” he admitted. “I was drinking way too much.”

He said the VA Hospital gave him a variety of medications that added to the mess.

“I would equate it to a ‘roid rage. It was easy to set me off,” he said.

Chavez said that and his PTSD led to several felonies, including a brawl with police.

“I had lost my home. I had lost my wife and kid," he said.

It was rock bottom. However, Chavez was given a choice: incarceration or treatment.

“I don’t think I’m overstating... I think we save lives here,” said Superior Court Judge Laura Birkmeyer.

Judge Birkmeyer said many military veterans and active duty service members struggle with mental health challenges like PTSD. However, instead of prison, the Veterans Treatment Court offers a three-part treatment program that takes almost two years to complete. The defendants also rely heavily on a fellow military veteran who mentors them through the process. If they make it through treatment, their record can be expunged.

Birkmeyer said they’ve had more than 140 men and women successfully complete the program in the 10 years since the program began in San Diego.

“It’s a hidden gem in the criminal justice system,” the Judge said. “When they rise up and they’re able to walk out those doors and say, ‘My case is done, my case is dismissed, I’m going forth, I’m moving on,’ it’s inspiring.”

“I wouldn’t be here,” said Chavez when asked if the program didn’t exist.

He completed the treatment program in 2019 but said his most important accomplishment was getting his family back.

Now, he said he’s paying it forward. Chavez said he’s a mentor in the treatment program for other men and women.

“He’s as good if not better when he walked out that courtroom door a while ago,” said Judge Birkmeyer.

She said the court partners with a number of organizations like the Veterans Village of San Diego and the VA to make sure the program is a success.

The Veterans Treatment Court has planned a virtual 10th anniversary celebration for Feb. 23.

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