At a restaurant in Maple Grove on Friday, a group of military veterans spoke about their mission in the civilian world.
Service for those who served.
“We’re here to support each other, and no veterinarian is left behind,” says Joe Durocher, Hennepin County Veterans Court Volunteer Coordinator.
“Going from the army to civilian life is a difficult thing,” adds Tom McKnuckles, who served in the US Marines during the Gulf War. “It’s very real.”
The veterans board is a way to help other struggling veterans.
“The purpose of the court is to try to divert vets to a less traditional, less consequential program where they would go to jail or jail and divert them to treatment,” Durocher said.
He explains that his job is to train volunteer veteran mentors, who help vets with service-related trauma: those facing charges ranging from shoplifting to assault.
The idea is to help these vets deal with their underlying issues instead of staying in a jail cell.
“The triple threat it’s about – anger, addiction, and PTSD. A lot of veterans served, wrote a blank check when they served, and when they came back, a lot of them are struggling” Durocher notes, “We just come together and support them and try to encourage vets to get the help they need to empower them to find their own path along the way.”
He says he trained 13 mentors and matched them with nine veterans.
But after the pandemic closures and delays, Durocher says the need for more volunteers is urgent.
“That was one of my biggest struggles, just coming back and trying to find work, and never feeling satisfied with what I was doing,” McKnuckles said.
Now a social worker, he says Durocher recruited him as a mentor at Veterans’ Court – in part because of his struggles after returning home.
“It’s about having people in your life tell you that it’s okay to make mistakes, it’s okay to be human, because that’s what life is,” McKnuckles says.
But sometimes tragedy does happen – even when a veteran appears to be recovering.
“I’ve had people die in my life, but I’ve never known anyone who was murdered,” says Larry Fyten, a US Army veteran who is also a mentor in the program. “I didn’t know how to treat it.”
Fyten says he mentored a military veteran named Ross Wentz, who struggled with drugs and alcohol.
He adds that he and Wentz have become close, going to church together and praying together – and that about a month and a half ago Wentz called him to tell him he was drug and drug free. the alcohol.
Then, Fyten learned that Wentz had been murdered while staying at a sober recovery home.
“We have a relationship now with his mother and his daughter and his sister. So we have a memorial service for this coming Saturday, a week from tomorrow,” he said calmly. “We need to love each other. I think that’s a basic message, to love and to serve. If we do this, everything will be fine. »
The fight for veterans is a national issue.
The Council on Criminal Justice – a policy research group – says about a third of those who have served our country continue to serve their time behind bars.
Veterans’ courts are an alternative.
“I’m cautiously optimistic anyway, that this will be a good thing for veterans in the long run,” says Judge Dale O. Harris, with the 6e Judicial district.
He presides over a veterans tribunal in Duluth.
Last August, Governor Tim Walz signed into law the “Restorative Justice for Veterans Act”.
While some veterans courts have been operating for more than a decade, the measure makes the programs available statewide.
Harris says veterans have to work hard to prove they’re trying to make a change.
“Sometimes it seems like a very monumental task to move all of these pieces in the right direction,” he says. “But it’s one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve done in my legal career.
The Restorative Justice for Veterans Act is the first of its kind in the country.
Since launching last year, 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS has learned that at least 100 Minnesota veterans have participated.
Meanwhile, Durocher says the vets in his program meet about once a week, for a year and a half.
After struggling with alcohol and a divorce, he says he leads a sober life and is very happy.
Just this week, a panel of Hennepin County judges honored him for his mentorship.
He calls it, pays it to the next one.
“It’s an absolute honor and privilege to not only coordinate the volunteers, but also to reach out to the vets who are in court,” Durocher said. “Try to inspire hope and let them know that the best is yet to come.”
You can read more about Hennepin County Veterans Court here.