Veterans Court graduates three, celebrates fourth anniversary
The Eighth Judicial District Veterans Treatment Court celebrated its fourth anniversary on Tuesday while graduating three more participants.
Dallas Obergfell, Jerry Keller and David Anderson brought the total number of graduates to 33 of the program that can last 12-18 months.
Of the graduates, “These guys have done so much. They’ve worked hard, they’ve earned distinction,” Judge Greg Pinski said. “It’s been an honor to have known you.”
Obergfell thanked Pinski “for giving me a second chance at life.”
He was the 31st graduate of the program.
“I can’t tell you how much I admire you,” Pinski said of the graduates. Pinski discharged all three graduates from probation and their records were expunged.
“You deserve a clean slate,” Pinski said.
Originally from Shelby, Keller served in the Navy and has lived in Great Falls for the last 12 years.
Joe Parsetich, the court’s mentor coordinator, had approached Keller to be a mentor in the program. As he started mentoring, Keller said he realized that he needed help himself.
He fell into substance abuse, stemming from a 2008 car accident.
“My life just kind of spiraled out of control,” Keller said. “I needed help.”
A misdemeanor charge for partner family member assault landed him in Judge Steve Bolstad’s court. Bolstad handles the Great Falls Municipal Court.
Once in the court, Keller asked Bolstad if he could get into Pinski’s court so that he could get back on track.
Pinski said he’d known Keller for a long time, but hadn’t seen or understood the invisible wounds he was dealing with.
“It was very embarrassing for me to come into this court, with it being Judge Pinski,” he said. “It is self-defeating to not ask for help.”
Once he got into veterans court, Keller said things got better. But the journey is just beginning. He was the 32nd graduate of the program.
“I’m not racing to the imaginary finish line of recovery,” Keller said.
He’s been volunteering by driving veterans to Helena for their VA appointments and now he’s going to work as a veterans service officer with the DAV office downtown. Graduates have to wait a year before they can become mentors, but Keller said he’s hoping to return to the mentor ranks in the future.
The mentors are all veterans themselves and become a sounding board to help the veterans get through the program. They do not take the place of professional counselors or the treatment team, but veterans often find it easier to open up to fellow veterans.
“Joe has been a guardian angel for me in many ways,” Keller said of his mentor. “Joe was there for me when I wasn’t there for myself.”
Anderson came from Kalispell to participate in the veterans court and lived and volunteered in the Grace Home. He was the 33rd graduate of the program.
To the veterans still in the program, Anderson said, “there is a light at the end of the tunnel. You will find it.”
Since the veterans court was established in Cascade County four years ago, there have been 63 participants.
The completion rate has been 90 percent of participants that enter the program, and Pinski said that so far, no graduates have committed new crimes.
The recidivism rate for people coming out of jail is 70 percent, Pinski said. The cost of veterans court is $4,300 per vet in the program, Pinski said. The cost to send a person to the Montana State Prison for a year is $42,000.
The low recidivism rate is in part, Pinski believes, due to the veterans population they’re serving. They aren’t criminals he said, but have found themselves in trouble due to untreated issues stemming from their military service.
Mayor Bob Kelly thanked the family, friends and mentors of the participants.
To the graduates, Kelly said “thank you for choosing to do the work and to have the courage required.”
He said that if the veterans choose to stay in Great Falls that the city will support them as they continue to recover and if they leave, the veterans will also be welcome in Great Falls.
“We care deeply about your lives,” Kelly said. “I know the hard stuff isn’t over. When the challenges get bigger than you might like, reach out. We’re all here for you.”
Pinski recognized United Way for their support of the program, along with juvenile and adult drug courts. He also recognized Bolstad of the Great Falls Municipal Court for referring veterans that find their way into his court to the veterans program in Pinski’s court.
“We all make bad decisions,” Parsetich said. “But please, please don’t let your bad decisions define your life.”