Earl “Gunny” Christensen couldn’t celebrate Independence Day after returning home from active duty because the fireworks “sounded like incoming enemy fire.”
The decorated Vietnam War veteran had learned to cope using alcohol over the years, and nearly 25 years after being honorably discharged from the Marine Corps, he was arrested for OWI and ordered to complete the Ingham County Veterans Treatment Court (ICVTC) program in the 54B District Court.
We often have images of “the few, the proud” in our military — brave soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who keep us from harm and protect our freedoms, and then ride off into the sunset.
But what happens to our service men and women when they return home isn’t always a happy ending, many continuing to fight internal battles long after they leave the military and some ending up in our criminal justice system.
Adds Judge Richard Ball of the ICVTC, who served in the Michigan National Guard, “A lot of folks leave the military without a clear plan.”
One of the strategic priorities of the Michigan Supreme Court is improving outcomes, and one way we do that is by supporting the veterans treatment courts around the state that provide the essential guidance necessary to help military veteran offenders who have struggled with the transition back into civilian life.
As part of our goal of making Michigan’s judiciary a national model of service to the public, we are proud to say that Michigan is currently leading the nation with 22 veterans treatment courts and counting.
These courts promote sobriety, recovery, and stability through a coordinated response that involves collaboration with a variety of traditional partners found in drug courts and mental health courts, as well as the Department of Veterans Affairs, volunteer veteran mentors, and organizations that support veterans and veterans’ families.
A primary way our State Court Administrative Office supports them is by connecting them with the funding they need to operate, recently granting $500,000 to veterans treatment courts across Michigan for Fiscal Year 2016.
In addition to funding, SCAO provides valuable resources for veterans treatment courts, including a new a manual for judges interested in starting veterans treatment court programs — the result of a partnership with Western Michigan University Cooley Law School and the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency.
Currently, SCAO is working with three more courts who are interested in starting VTCs.
Judge Terrence Bronson presides over one of our newest courts, the Monroe County Veterans Treatment Court in the 1st District Court.
A Navy veteran, Judge Terrence Bronson felt compelled to pursue the VTC model. “During my service, I saw a lot of people affected by what they had to do, so I can obviously empathize with these individuals,” he said.
Since it became operational in August 2014, Judge Bronson’s court has graduated two veterans, and currently has 20 participants.
“When you have a positive response and progress, it’s a really good feeling,” he remarked.
54B District Court, which started one of Michigan’s first veterans treatment courts in March 2010, was where Gunny Christensen got help.
“I should have been dead. I should have been in jail,” he admitted. “The reason I am standing here is because of this court.”
Gunny graduated from ICVTC on March 24, 2014, and is now a mentor in the program. He has also started a veteran-specific Alcoholics Anonymous program.
“The turnaround in my life is a total miracle. I have nothing but gratitude for the court and what it has done for me and allowed me to do for myself,” he shared. “More important than my military career is the help I received from the ICVTC to live a good, clean, honest life.”
Gunny’s is just one of many success stories to come out of Michigan’s veterans treatment courts that are literally solving problems and saving lives.
Veterans’ service to our nation never stops, so our service to them should continue here at home.
Robert P. Young Jr. is chief justice and Bridget M. McCormack is a justice of the Michigan Supreme Court.