The VVA Veteran® Online

March/April 2015

VVA & Veterans Treatment Courts


A transformation happens to every single veteran who complies with the program. You start to see the benefits of not using drugs and alcohol. You get your family back. You start making money again. You get your education. And by the time you’re done with the program, you no longer want to be a part of the criminal justice system. It not only gave me my life back, it gave me a purpose.

— Nick Stefanovic, judicial assessment specialist
for the Rochester, New York, treatment courts

It started in Buffalo, New York, with a judge named Robert Russell who was looking for answers, and veteran activists led by Jack O’Connor, the late Hank Pirowski, and Patrick Welch, many of them members of Western New York Chapter 77, who wanted to help him.

Russell, an affable and popular Criminal Court judge first elected in 1992, was responsible for establishing mental health and drug treatment courts in Erie County. He kept noticing veterans—some not so young, others recently returned from the chaos of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq—come before him, charged with a variety of low-level felonies and misdemeanors.

“It was an incident in late 2006 with this one veteran that got me to thinking,” relates Russell, who has pioneered a national movement that Patrick Welch has called “the most profound change in the attitude of our criminal justice system toward veterans in the history of this country.”

This one veteran, Russell says, “was six-four or six-five, a real big guy. We had him linked to one of our community mental health treatment providers. But they weren’t making much headway. He wasn’t participating in the group counseling; he would just sit there. In the one-on-one counseling, he wasn’t much engaged either.”

One day, when the veteran, whom Russell knew had served in Vietnam, was in court, “I called the case. As he’s approaching this little podium area in front of the bench, his posture is slumped. He’s not making any eye contact. I asked him, ‘What’s going on with you?’ His mumbled responses weren’t clear.

“My project director, Hank Pirowski, a Marine Vietnam veteran, was standing next to this guy. And Jack O’Connor was in the courtroom—Jack would stop by periodically to check in on my court—and I knew Jack was a Vietnam veteran, and served in the 82nd Airborne. I’m like, ‘Hey, Jack. Would you mind taking this guy out into the hallway? Talk to him.’ ”

It wasn’t more than twenty minutes later when they came back into the courtroom. Judge Russell had the court clerk recall the case. “This guy approaches the podium. He stands in front of me with his head raised, at parade rest. Then he looks directly at me and says, ‘Judge, I’m going to try harder.’

Judge Marc Carter, Harris County, Texas, Veterans Treatment Court“After court, I asked Hank and Jack to come back to my office,” Russell says. “ ‘What happened? What did you say to this guy? What did you all do to him?’ They told me, ‘We talked about where he served in Nam. And after some general discussion we said, “Look, we really want you to get well. We’re all trying to see what we can do to help you move forward. We care about you. We want you to do better. Come on, we need you engaged in your counseling.” ’

“‘You mean to tell me this guy, being in counseling, they can’t make any headway? And talking to a couple of vets, he responds like that?’ ” The judge was astonished. And intrigued.

“It set me to think that we need to do something more than what we’re doing now,” he says. Then Hank Pirowski offered a suggestion: “Judge, why don’t we set aside a day for vets that we’re seeing who have a clinical diagnosis of mental health disease or disorder, dependency on substances, or both, and set them on a calendar?”

That was the beginning. O’Connor got the judge an invitation to the next meeting of the Veterans Advisory Board at the Buffalo VAMC, where he met Patrick Welch. He told the group that he was considering setting aside a morning or afternoon for a veterans-only docket, for those in need of treatment-related services. What do you think? he asked.

Then, Russell remembers, people around the room started raising their hands. “One guy said, ‘I want to volunteer.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘I want to help.’ And then around the room, all the veterans raised their hands and said, ‘I’ll volunteer.’ That was like, wow. I said, ‘Well, understand, I’ve got no idea what it looks like.’ They said, ‘We want to help you do this.’ So we started meeting there monthly.”

One of the first things this ad hoc group did was to ask questions that needed answers if this new court was to succeed. That the VA—initially the Veterans Health Administration, joined later by the Veterans Benefits Administration—was on board from the beginning was a coup. They soon arranged for their Veterans Justice Outreach (VJO) coordinators to bring laptops into the courtroom to facilitate immediate access to a veteran’s medical record and benefits if they were in the VA system, said Lt. Nikki Slaughter, the VA’s first VJO there. If the veteran was in the system, appointments could be scheduled, and lab results, such as for urine tests, obtained right then and there.

“If the VA hadn’t allowed those computers in this court,” says O’Connor, “there wouldn’t be a veterans court.”

For veterans ineligible for VA benefits, community-based providers had to be located and vetted. Then there was the matter of getting the prosecuting and defense attorneys to agree to work in concert in seeking justice for the veteran defendant and for the accuser. Getting other parts of the criminal justice system—police and probation officers and corrections personnel—along with elected officials and community leaders to buy into this untried court concept was a challenge. The goal was to provide “smart, effective, evidence-based justice,” says Chris Deutsch, communications director for Justice for Vets, a program of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

The effectiveness of these courts, Deutsch says, lies is the number of worthy lives restored, of families kept intact, and communities strengthened. Another measure of success is the number of recidivists among the veterans who elect to go along with the program—a regimen that can be far more difficult than doing a straight bit in jail or prison.


Without firm answers to all the proceedural questions, the Buffalo Veterans Court began operations in January 2008. A pioneering effort, it has become a national model.

In addition to the key role played by the VA, another element has come to be viewed as essential to the successful operation of a Veterans Treatment Court: trained peer mentors. They have proven to be much more than an asset. They are part of, yet apart from, the rest of a treatment court team in that they don’t work for the court and don’t report to the judge.

“You’ve got to have vets working with vets; you’ve got to have vets encouraging vets,” says Judge Russell. “Some treatment courts might start off working with the VA, but they might be lacking that veteran mentor piece. I’m thinking that they’re missing out on the real gem to not incorporate peer mentoring. There’s so much value in it. There is so much value even for our veterans who volunteer. Mentoring also holds healing properties for them.”

As Phil Ippolito, the assistant coordinator for mentors at the Buffalo Veterans Court, puts it: “A mentor simply says to a veteran, ‘I’ve walked a mile in your boots. I’m not a counselor. I’m not a doctor. I’m a fellow veteran.’ ” Mentors, adds Pat Welch, “are here to give a hand up, not a handout.” They provide resources about education and housing and jobs—and encouragement during a difficult time.

Kenny MooreVVA member Kenny Moore, the outreach coordinator for Monroe County, New York, Veteran Services, was a key resource when the court was established in Rochester. There were some “obvious” initial concerns, he says: Must a Marine mentor a Marine? Should an Iraq War vet mentor a vet who served in Iraq or Afghanistan?

“I’m 72 years old and this kid I’m asked to mentor is 24,” Moore says. “How is this going to work out? It turns out that branch of service has never been an issue. As far as the age thing, they know that we’ve been there and done that. ‘Look,’ we tell them, ‘I was in combat in Vietnam, so you’re not going to tell me something I’ve never heard before.’

“I’ve always told them—and I know the other guys have, too—‘Look, if you get up at two o’clock in the morning on a Friday and you have the urge to do some cocaine or whatever, I would rather you call me and get my butt out of bed. I’ll meet you down at the coffee shop, and let’s sit and talk. I’d rather do that with you than see you stumble.’ And some of them will do that, once they know you’re really there to help them.”

One who has been helped is Manny Welch. A Navy veteran whose brushes with the law resulted from too many drugs and too much alcohol, he was one of the first to enter the program at the Buffalo Veterans Court, and one of the first to graduate.

“The journey from the bottom, from being hopeless, helpless, and useless, to where I am today [a peer support specialist for the VA] is all because of the mentors in the Buffalo Veterans Court,” he says.


Nick Stefanovic & Jack O'ConnorJustice for Vets, the central resource for jurisdictions considering establishing a Veterans Treatment Court, counts 220 Veterans Courts across the country, with hundreds more in various stages of development.

Four courts—in Buffalo and Rochester, New York; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Orange County, California—are “official” Justice for Vets Mentor Veterans Treatment Courts. As such, they help develop, identify, and test national best practices and provide technical assistance to communities interested in starting a Veterans Treatment Court. Information can be obtained at

One of the most recent jurisdictions to embrace the Veteran Court concept is Fairfax County, Virginia. Again, members of Vietnam Veterans of America played a crucial role. Don Northcutt, a VVA life member, is the mentor coordinator for the county’s Veterans Treatment Docket. He and fellow veteran volunteers, many from Northern Virginia Chapter 227, are doing their part to live up to the VVA motto, “In Service to America.”

Bernard Edelman is deputy director of VVA’s Government Affairs Department. This report is culled from a thorough examination of Veterans Treatment Courts that was commissioned by the National Institute of Corrections. His full report, A Second Chance for Vets Who Have Lost Their Way, soon will be published by NIC. The report also will be uploaded to

Patrick Welch: Birth of an Advocate

Patrick Welch has long been an advocate for America’s veterans. He has chaired VVA’s Government Affairs Committee, been a member of the National Board of Directors, and he is founder of the Center for Veterans & Family Services at Daemen College. A member—and former president—of Western New York Chapter 77, Welch played an integral role in the creation and development of the Buffalo Veterans Court.

Patrick WelchI started in veterans’ advocacy in 1986. For a lot of years I was kind of a passive veterans supporter because it wasn’t popular to be a Vietnam veteran. So whatever I did, I did quietly.

And then in 1989 I found Vietnam Veterans of America after I had had a personal tragedy: We lost one of our daughters, and I had gone into a five-year depression. I was back in the old PTSD mode. I thought about suicide every night. I planned it, how I was going to do it, every single day; that’s all I thought about.

I met Al Brusetti, who was president of Chapter 77. And I finally found something that brought me back to doing things. And ever since ’89 I have become very active and very outspoken on behalf of veterans.

I had a profound experience in 1990 when I was down for VVA’s Leadership Conference in Virginia. I had just gotten elected president of Chapter 77. Sonny Montgomery was chair of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and there was a big vote coming up on Agent Orange. And my congressman, Bill Paxson, was supposedly one of the key votes.

So the guys grabbed me and said, “We’re gonna rally and you’re gonna get up there and you’re gonna lobby Paxson before the vote.” I was a newbie at the time, and I was thinking, What do you guys want me to do? So they explained it to me.

So I made an appointment, and I got a meeting with Paxson. I went in and told him why we wanted this bill, the Agent Orange Act of 1991, passed. Then, when it went to the committee for a vote, they positioned me in a front row seat, the VVA guys did, right by Paxson. And they told me, “Your only job is to stare at him.”

And so I did what I was told. I just stared at my congressman. Lane Evans was on the committee and Sonny Montgomery, the chair, called for a voice vote. Montgomery said, “The Nays have it; it’s defeated.” Lane Evans jumped up and said, “No sir, I think it was too close. I want a roll call vote.”

Paxson was at the left end of the table; they started at the right end. As they went all the way around, I did nothing but stare at Paxson. He had his head down. When it got to Paxson, he voted Yes. And the bill passed.

That was an epiphany for me, because it made me realize that one person can make a difference. That was a big high for me, and I’ve been flying ever since. It showed me that our process can work if you lobby correctly. I developed my own advocacy philosophy, which I call “VIP-squared”—Visibility and Involvement and Pleasant Persistence.

Advocacy has become a passion for me. I do it for two reasons:

First, for the guys I lost. I can’t help them anymore, but in their honor, in their memory, I can help others who survived. Second, it serves as a part of my therapy.

Mokie PorterBaby, It’s Cold Outside:
Veterans Against Drugs’ All Skate
Photos: Brian DuMontThe Lone Bugler’s Funeral and Chapter 899’s Honor Guard
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