MARINE CORPS BASE HAWAII --
HONOLULU — Cameras flashed, families and friends applauded, tears were wiped away and hugs were shared as the first class of the Hawaii Veterans Treatment Court graduated in a ceremony at the State Supreme Court, April 17, 2015.
Four former service members each received certificates of merit and graduation, as well as a challenge coin. Standing beside each graduate was a fellow veteran, a source of support along their journey — their volunteer mentor.
Veterans Treatment Court exists to support former service members who have engaged in criminal activity, and are trying to resolve challenges they face, such as substance abuse and mental health problems. U.S. Vets and Salvation Army Addiction Treatment Services staff members provide evaluation and treatment for the veterans. Each defendant has a mentor, who has also served in the military, to help them along the way.
First Circuit Judge Ed Kubo initiated the Hawaii Veterans Treatment Court in 2013. There are treatment courts nationwide.
“The military service (members) and their families were there for us in our time of need,” Kubo said. “Now it’s our turn to say thank you and give back to (the service members) and get them back on their feet (with) the tools that they need toward a successful future.”
In addition to the mentors, defendants in the program receive support from two treatment dogs. Kubo said through working with the Hawaiian Humane Society, a boxer named Athena and a poodle named Popo attend court on Fridays.
“It’s becoming almost like a superstitious regimen,” Kubo said. “(The defendants) pet the dog and they stand before me and they report. After they report, finish their case, they pat the dog and they (leave the court).”
Kubo said the average age of the mentors are around mid-50s, several of which served during the Vietnam War. However, he said, it would be beneficial to have younger mentors in the program to match the younger defendants.
Veterans Treatment Court was first established in 2008 by Judge Robert Russell in Buffalo, N.Y. There are now more than 100 courts nationwide. Melissa Fitzgerald, the senior director of Justice for Vets, a division of the nonprofit National Association of Drug Court Professionals, attended the ceremony to offer congratulations to the graduates and praise for all who had a hand in the Hawaii program.
“To the volunteer veteran mentors, thank you for continuing to serve your country by being of service to your fellow veterans,” Fitzgerald said. “You are what we like to call the ‘secret sauce’ of veterans treatment court. Today millions of veterans stand ready and willing to continue to serve their nation right here at home. The volunteers in this room and in veterans treatment courts across the country prove that there is no bond as strong as the one that exists among those who wore the uniform … that bond is turned into healing and empowerment.”
Ron Cayetano has volunteered as a mentor with the treatment court for more than two years. A native of Pahoa, Hawaii, Cayetano was an active-duty Marine from June 1965 through 1969. Cayetano has ties to Marine Corps Base Hawaii, having served in the Vietnam War with the now-inactive Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 27th Marine Regiment, and Marine Aircraft Group 24.
“The most rewarding (aspect of volunteering) for me is when you receive a call from your mentee and he wants to talk because he is depressed, angry at something or someone and wants to talk about the issues,” Cayetano said. “Now I know he will succeed because he did not go back to his old habits when faced with obstacles.”
Don Wood, a native of Long Beach, Calif., was recruited as a mentor while attending a Veterans of Foreign Wars State Convention in 2013. Wood served as a hospital corpsman in 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment.
“As a mentor, it is at times overwhelmingly emotional,” he said. “But you have to remember that is the veteran that is making the change only because they finally realize that someone actually cares and believes in them and that they do have value to society. The big payoff is that they finally believe in themselves.”
Wood said he finds it particularly rewarding to see the veteran make changes. To the friends, family and treatment court staff, he said, it is evident when a veteran is changing for the better.
Before becoming a mentor, Kubo encourages veterans to visit the court to get a feel for the program. Court occurs every Friday from 2 to 3 p.m. in Courtroom Five at 777 Punchbowl St. in Honolulu.