This is part one of a series on Specialty Courts.

They care because they've been there. Data suggests that the peer specialists who work with court involved veterans are a vital part of what makes veterans treatment courts (VTCs) so effective.

That's because they've often had to overcome the same issues as the veterans they now help in court.

Since the state’s first veterans treatment court session opened in Dedham in 2012, only 11.5% of participants have been re-arraigned for new crimes within three years of graduating from the program, compared to a 47% recidivism rate for probationers not under specialty court supervision.

Peer specialists are part of the Department of Veterans Services’ (DVS) SAVE Team, which works closely with the state’s five VTCs. With its focus on crisis intervention, jail diversion and re-integration, the SAVE team helps veterans navigate the civilian world, sometimes years after coming home.

Thanks in large part to the peer specialists’ efforts, court involved veterans are more likely to stay in the intensive 18-24 month probation program, and stay out of the court system after they graduate. Some participants call the four-year old VTC program, which involves weekly check-ins with a judge, the “massive debriefing” they didn’t get from the military.

Case study: Peer Support Specialist David Odenweller joined the Marines in 2002. Deployed in 2005 as a motor transportation operator in the 2nd Transportation Support Battalion, he was a machine gunner providing convoy security in Iraq. IEDs and enemy fire were common, but Corporal Odenweller didn’t feel the full effects of PTSD creep up on him until he returned stateside.

Assigned to the Joint Personal Effects Depot in Maryland, Mr. Odenweller inventoried, packed and sent home thousands of personal effects belonging to soldiers and civilian contractors who were killed or wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. He remembers listening to a recording a fallen soldier made to his unborn child. The assignment hit him hard. After his discharge from the Marines, Mr. Odenweller turned to drugs and alcohol to block the memories. He was eventually arrested for drug possession and OUI outside his home.

The arrest marked a turning point. Mr. Odenweller, who was in the Norfolk VTC’s first graduating class in 2012, volunteered as a peer mentor before joining the SAVE team. He now works as a peer specialist at the Norfolk VTC with Judge Mary Hogan Sullivan.

“Helping others has helped me move on with my life,” he says, adding that the veterans he works with can relate to him, because he’s been through similar experiences and has graduated from the same program. 

Mr. Odenweller will check in with his cases before the start of a court session. Anniversaries of buddies’ deaths, or Veterans Day itself, can be extremely difficult for those recovering from addiction, PTSD, or traumatic brain injuries.

“I might text a probation officer before a session and let them know someone’s in rough shape that day,” he says. “I hope to be the first line of defense. I can relate to these guys, and to the courts.”

To find veterans in trouble, peer specialists participate in community outreach events around the state to connect with family members of veterans. Families also contact the SAVE team when a loved one is at risk, or is arrested. As part of the SAVE team’s jail diversion efforts, peer specialists also visit incarcerated veterans to help prepare them for life outside – which can include referring them to a veterans treatment court.

“You’re joined together, you’re back in a unit - that’s the court uplifting veterans,” says Mr. Odenweller, who often sits with veterans under arraignment during the court’s observation days and shares his experience in the program. “We teach these guys how to trust other people again,” he says.

Quick Stats

  • The first veterans treatment program launched in Buffalo, New York in 2008.
  • 29.9 million veterans live in the United States.
  • 379,772 veterans live in Massachusetts, of which 273,956 are wartime vets.
  • Some 20 veterans commit suicide every day. The risk of suicide for veterans is 21 percent higher than for civilian adults.
  • Approximately 65% of all veterans who died from suicide in 2014 were 50 years or older.

Source: va.gov; Facts about Veteran Suicide, July 2016.