Veterans Treatment Court marks fifth anniversary in Great Falls
Dave Belcher served in the Army and returned from a combat tour with a traumatic brain injury.
“We put our boots on and we leave the ones we love behind to go fight…for your safety. That’s what we do,” Belcher said.
When he came home, he was angry and said, “all the people who loved me, I pushed them away. I became a very lonely man.”
He struggled with drug addiction and was facing a prison sentence after he hurt the woman he loved.
“I wanted to die,” he said.
Belcher was sent to Judge Greg Pinski as a candidate for Veterans Treatment Court in Great Falls.
“I thought who was gonna want to help me,” Belcher said. “I didn’t know what a friend really was…until I met the judge.”
Now, he’s returned to his native Oregon where he goes fishing every day and married that girl he hurt years ago.
On Nov. 13, he joined dozens of other veterans and community members at the 120th Airlift Wing to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the veterans treatment court in the 8th Judicial District.
Belcher was the first vet court graduate and encouraged the other veterans in the audience not to push away people who love them, despite the challenges.
Pinski said that when he was running for district court judge in 2012, he spoke to a group of veterans at the Black Eagle Community Center.
One of the veterans, Rodger McConnell, approached Pinski and said we need a veterans court.
“I promised him it would happen,” Pinski said during Tuesday’s ceremony. “It became my mission.”
McConnell was a Vietnam veteran, a driving force in veterans advocacy efforts, a mentor in veterans court and more in the community. He died in July 2016.
In these first five years, the Great Falls vet court has served 108 veterans, “who would have otherwise been incarcerated,” Pinski said. Fifty-three veterans are currently enrolled, 47 have successfully completed the program, three were medically discharged, one was transferred and four were unsuccessful, according to court data.
Pinski said that of the program graduates, only 10 percent had committed new offenses.
By keeping the veterans out of jail, Pinski said the program had saved the county an estimated $250,584.84.
Gov. Steve Bullock attended the ceremony and said “it’s easy to ignore the challenge,” of difficult circumstances.
But the vet court team, and participants, had taken up that challenge.
“The court is treating offenders as human beings,” Bullock said, and giving them what they need to be successful in the community, including peer support and mentoring, “so that they know that they’re not alone in this.”
“We know that it is working…and ultimately, saving lives,” he said. “It’s easy to become known by statistics.”
But the court is providing hope to veterans that “they can and they will overcome” the challenges, Bullock sad.
To the graduates and current participants who attended Tuesday’s ceremony, Bullock said, “we’re so pleased and proud of your successes along the way.”
Pinski said that 16 percent of all Native Americans are veterans compared with 9 percent of the general population, and to honor their contributions and participation in the court, Wesley Old Coyote, of the Indian Family Health Clinic in Great Falls, brought blankets and sweetgrass for the veterans.
During the ceremony, Old Coyote told the vet court participants and graduates that “you have displayed the valor of a warrior. A warrior, for many of us, is to sacrifice himself for others. You are a warrior.”
Pinski said that he recently asked the veterans court team to identify the words that describe the veterans when the enter the program. The words they used, included: hopeless, resistant, dependent, scared, ambivalent, lonely, manipulative, angry, disconnected, unemployed, homeless, depressed and sick.
Pinski then asked them to describe the veterans when they complete veterans court. The words they used included: stable, independent, employed, sober, reunited, thankful, happy, motivated, healthy, hopeful, law-abiding, proud, honest, connected, likable, social, engaged, aware and confident.
“Witnessing the transformation of veterans before your eyes is indescribable, but we see it everyday in veterans treatment court,” Pinski said as he introduced four graduates of the program.
John Dailey served in the U.S. Coast Guard and found himself in the vet court through its collaboration with federal district court.
Dailey said the gifts from the court “are immeasurable.”
He said that in 2012 he found himself in trouble with state criminal charges and spent several years in state and federal prison. Dailey said he was eventually diagnosed with post traumatic stress and other mental conditions.
Dailey said he graduated from the vet court, but “it was certainly not an easy road.”
Marvin Harris graduated from vet court last year.
He served as a combat medic in Vietnam.
“I honestly don’t know where I would be today without that life altering experience,” he said of vet court.
Harris volunteered for the draft and landed in Vietnam the morning that the Tet Offensive started in 1968. He was there for about a year and said he was “not necessarily a hero, I did my job.”
When he came home, he became a doctor in Great Falls, but he knew something wasn’t right.
“I felt alone and empty,” he said on during the ceremony.
His wife left, his son left and he was estranged from his daughter.
Harris said he sought treatment, but was told he was treatment resistant and was sent to an out-of-state center where a psychiatrist recognized that he was suffering from post traumatic stress and bipolar disorder and started treatment.
Back home in Great Falls, he was off his medication and in a manic state when he was driving the wrong way on 10th Avenue South, causing a serious crash. In his manic state, he left the scene and stole a car from Enterprise so he could get home.
He told the audience on Tuesday that he had spent last Thanksgiving with the daughter he’d been estranged from for more than a decade and was proud to say he was headed back to share the holiday with her again this year.