The first — and possibly last — class of the Forsyth County Veterans Treatment Court graduates as the program goes on hiatus until a federal funding glitch can be straightened out.
Six military veterans — men who served in the US Army, Navy and Marines from Vietnam through the current conflict in Afghanistan — rose one by one on Wednesday afternoon to receive citations for “meritorious participation and successful completion” of the Forsyth County Veterans Treatment Court from Judge David Sipprell at Goodwill Industries of Northwest NC.
They wore white dress shirts tucked into slacks and black shoes buffed to a high shine. Some wore suits. Nicholas Wright, who operated LCM boats to ferry Marines in and out of the Mekong Delta during his Army combat service Vietnam, used a cane to make his way across the floor dressed in a tan suit with a yellow tie as program coordinator Jemi Moore called his name.
Wright was one of the first to sign up for the program, which helps veteran offenders access treatment as a substitute for prosecution for criminal offenses, when it launched in early 2017.
“Thank God for Judge Sipprell,” the 63-year-old Wright said after accepting his citation. “He was an inspiration to me. During the program, he pulled me aside. He said, ‘Look, Nick, I know you’ve been having trouble with drugs. I’m not going to put you in jail. I’m going to make you write an essay.’ It had to be three pages long. He had me read it aloud in court. It embarrassed me so much I decided to buckle down and do right.”
Through the special court Wright received a referral to the VA Medical Center in Kernersville. He met with a psychiatrist and counselor. He continues to attend meetings at the VA for veterans who, like him, hold a dual diagnosis for post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse.
Harold Eustache Jr., a former prosecutor who helped set up the Forsyth County Veterans Treatment Court, gave the keynote speech for the graduation. He fought in Iraq and Afghanistan as a paratrooper infrantryman from 2004 through 2010.
Eustache asked the graduating veterans to remember how they felt when they took the oath of enlistment.
“Think back to the bravery and pride you felt going into the unknown, because that’s what we do as veterans,” he said.
Eustache said when he left the military he assumed that nothing could be tougher than combat, but quickly learned he wasn’t prepared for the ambiguity of civilian life. He felt like a stranger to his young family. He experienced depression and used any excuse he could find to avoid being at home.
“In 2011, while I was out late at night in downtown Charlotte, I pulled up to a checkpoint and was arrested for impaired driving,” Eustache recalled. “My father is an attorney, so by the time I was released in the morning, he was waiting on me, as you can imagine. Because we have the same last name they thought it was him, so that’s why he got all the calls. And he was not very pleased. I was ashamed. No one in my family had ever been arrested. I felt like my life was over.”
The arrest prompted Eustache to go the VA in Salisbury, and he received a diagnosis of mild traumatic brain injury stemming from multiple concussions in combat. The DWI was eventually dismissed, but Eustache said he has passed up the opportunity to have the charge expunged from his record because he wants to be reminded “of the shame it brought me that I refuse to relive.”
“Today, I ask that all the veterans graduating today pledge to use this experience and this graduation to prove to yourselves that you can do anything,” Eustache said. “But use it for more than that. Use it as a living testimony to others — a pledge that you will never quit.”
While the veterans didn’t quit, the program is. July 31 will be Moore’s last day as coordinator. And while Moore said several veterans who are currently enrolled in the program will still receive treatment and continue to meet with the judge, no additional applicants will be accepted.
The unceremonious suspension of the Forsyth County Veterans Court resulted from an interruption of federal funding because of an ongoing legal battle between the US Justice Department and the states over sanctuary jurisdictions.
Clyde Roper, a spokesperson for the NC Department of Public Safety, said in an email to Triad City Beat that the funding through the Byrne JAG grant that was scheduled to be released on Oct. 1, 2017, “but it was held up in litigation and ultimately a nationwide federal injunction.” The NC Governor’s Crime Commission uses the Byrne JAG grant to fund a number of specialty courts across the state, including veterans treatment courts and drug treatment courts.
“The litigation and ultimately a nationwide injunction was due to the requirement that states comply with new conditions added by the federal DOJ,” Roper said. “Those conditions included among others, matters related to sanctuary cities. While there are no sanctuary cities in North Carolina, we were impacted by the nationwide injunction, which in turn adversely affected the veteran treatment court.”
Roper added that while the injunction has been lifted, the funds from the 2017 grant are still not available because the state has not met the new conditions for compliance. The 2018 grant is expected to open in October.
James Prosser, the assistant secretary of veterans affairs for North Carolina, traveled from Raleigh to congratulate the six graduates in Winston-Salem on Wednesday.
“We’ve just now become aware of all the funding issues,” he said, “from the lack of funding from the federal government. I just want to pledge to you that we’re going to continue to work do what we can to make sure we get funding for these courts because we see how they work not only across our state, but across the country. We admire y’all for starting one, and having such a great program. This is the first graduation, and, Lord, we don’t want it to be the last one.”
The graduates watched a video address from US Sen. Thom Tillis, which did not address the funding debacle. An aide later said the first Tillis’ office had heard about the funding glitch was when a reporter called on Monday. Sen. Richard Burr and Rep. Virginia Foxx also have not commented on the matter.
Winston-Salem City Council members DD Adams and Dan Besse attended the graduation. Adams said later in an email that she plans to talk with her colleagues about the possibility of the city providing gap funding to keep the program going until federal funding is restored.
Although he’s already reaped the rewards, Nicholas Wright said it would be a mistake to let the veterans treatment court fall by the wayside.
“I think that is a bad move because we really need this program,” he said. “There are so many veterans who get caught up in the justice system. They have no way out other than going to jail. If you’re going to pull funding, you’re pulling the life out of veterans and putting veterans back in the same situation where I was when I almost went to jail.”