Court Aims to Help Vets with Legal Troubles A new court in Buffalo is working with the Veterans Affairs Department to help veterans such as Gary Pettingill, who was busted in a drug sweep, get back on their feet. Court officials hope that reaching out to troubled veterans will help reduce the risk of suicide or violence.
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Court Aims to Help Vets with Legal Troubles

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Court Aims to Help Vets with Legal Troubles

Court Aims to Help Vets with Legal Troubles

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Some of the troops who removed Saddam's government face legal problems of their own. Some American veterans come home with physical or mental wounds, some get in trouble with the law, and now a judge in Buffalo, New York has created a special court for them. Here's NPR's Libby Lewis.

LIBBY LEWIS: Gary Pettengill wanted the military to be his career. But the army made him take a medical discharge in 2006 after he blew out his back in Iraq - end of career. He was married with a third kid on the way; he was 23 years old. He started smoking marijuana to deal with the nightmares from his PTSD and the empty days - and he started selling it to make up the gap between the part-time work his back could handle, the food stamps, and everything else.

Mr. GARY PETTENGILL (Discharged from Army): Diapers. If you run out of formula, it's like $21 a can, clothing.

LEWIS: In February he got busted in a drug sweep with two pounds of marijuana. Just like that, Pettengill went from combat veteran to drug felon. He was on the brink of doing serious time and losing his kids to child welfare because of the drugs. His family got kicked out of their apartment.

Then he got lucky and got referred to Judge Robert Russell's Veterans Court. Today he's one of about 20 veterans in the court that convenes on Tuesday afternoons. They served in Vietnam, the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan. They're sitting quietly in the courtroom waiting to be called.

A line of military volunteers, most of them veterans, a couple of active-duty officers, lines one wall.

Judge ROBERT RUSSELL (Veterans Court): Good afternoon.

Mr. PETTENGILL: Good afternoon, sir.

Judge RUSSELL: Hi, Gary.


LEWIS: Pettengill has a buzz cut and a clean plaid shirt so big it looks like he might disappear in it any moment. He stands before Judge Russell.

Judge RUSSELL: Nice to see you, and why not give me an update.

Mr. PETTENGILL: My family and I moved into a new home.

Judge RUSSELL: That's good news.

Mr. PETTENGILL: Been there for about a week now.

Judge RUSSELL: How do you like it?

Mr. PETTENGILL: It's pretty nice - different neighborhood. Pretty quiet, a lot bigger, though, than before. More room for the kids to play inside.

LEWIS: It sounds like small talk, but it's not. It's the nitty-gritty. The judge is listening for signs of stability that can keep Pettengill out of jail. Since his arrest, the Veterans Court, working with the VA, has helped Pettengill get part-time work, cash and housing assistance for an apartment and drug rehab. He has one of the volunteer veteran mentors. Now Judge Russell's talking to him like they're catching up over coffee.

Judge RUSSELL: And how is the family doing?

Mr. PETTENGILL: They're doing good. Still hard balancing around a lot of my appointments, and she's trying to get a job also.

LEWIS: Russell and his staff started this docket in January, when they realized more and more veterans were showing up in court. They counted 300 vets coming into the local courts last year. A lot of them were showing up in drug and mental health court. Those so-called problem-solving courts are aimed more at getting treatment and help for the people in them than imprisonment.

Russell and his staff were seeing the figures on the large numbers of Iraq veterans coming home with PTSD, like Gary Pettengill, and brain injuries.

Mr. HANK PIROWSKI: The reality is, is that we knew that we had to develop something now, because soon there will be 400,000 coming home.

LEWIS: Hank Pirowski heads Judge Russell's staff. He says a lot of the vets they've seen got into trouble because they were dealing with the aftermath of combat.

Mr. PIROWSKI: You know, it starts out simply from a prescription abuse to illicit substances to some type of crime activity to support that habit to being arrested, going to jail.

LEWIS: Pirowski says Buffalo is trying to do right by veterans and to prevent bigger problems like suicide and violence. Gary Pettengill says he was headed for suicide before he wound up in Judge Russell's court. He was down and out in one of the poorest cities in America.

Mr. PETTENGILL: I was having nightmares and I couldn't sleep and I have problems. Like, if I can't sleep a couple days on end, I get - it's like I want to do anything to rest, anything.

LEWIS: Pettengill says now he realizes he turned to drugs to fill a void that opened up when he left the Army. He's hoping Judge Russell's court will help him stay on track.

Mr. PETTENGILL: You know, I have three beautiful children and they need their father. And I don't want, you know, a suicide hanging over their heads for the rest of their lives either.

LEWIS: Hank Pirowski says he and Judge Russell have thought a lot about the stories of Iraq veterans who came home and then lost it and killed themselves or other people.

Mr. PIROWSKI: If we would have reached that person sooner, would they have gotten to this point and to that charge? Would that have happened? You know, and that's a good question. You know, had that person been diagnosed properly, can we or may we have stopped that? There's a chance that we could have.

LEWIS: Do they know that for sure? Nope. But they're trying anyway. And there are signs other places will try too.

Libby Lewis, NPR News.

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