Pacing through the Pines

Dan Dow's Veterans Treatment Court has changed lives

Special to The CambrianApril 18, 2014 

Audifret Sanchez, pictured during his Marine Corps deployment to Iraq in 2003, benefits from county Veterans Treatment Court services.

COURTESY PHOTO

Freelance journalist and Cambria resident John FitzRandolph’s monthly column "Pacing through the Pines" is special to The Cambrian. Email him at johnfitz44@yahoo.com.

Seated on a sun-soaked back deck interviewing Dan Dow, a candidate for San Luis Obispo County district attorney, a reporter quickly learns that Dow’s top priorities include protecting kids from heroin pushers and locking criminal gang members away long term.

Minutes into the dialogue, Dow, father of two and a major in the California National Guard, makes clear one of the achievements he is most proud of during his eight and a half years as deputy district attorney: helping establish the Veterans Treatment Court (VTC) in 2013.

The court serves veterans who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other psychological complications brought home that directly contribute to their involvement with the criminal justice system.

The county’s VTC is the 15th in California and, because Dow’s opponent, Assistant District Attorney Tim Covello, offered zero support when Dow was pushing for the court’s establishment several years ago, there is clear separation between the two candidates on that pivotal issue. (Editor’s note: At a recent debate, Covello credited Dow with leading the effort to create the Veterans Treatment Court and said that he and current District Attorney Gerry Shea have long supported the program.)

Dow speaks without a lot of emotional inflection, but his word choices communicate razor-sharp messages that go well beyond campaign rhetoric.

How does the court know that PTSD is the catalyst for the veteran that commits a crime after deployment? “If we just look at the history of the Vietnam War, it’s well known that those that suffered in battle have come back with psychological wounds, and many turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate,” Dow explains.

“There’s a lot of research showing there’s a direct link. Quite frankly,” Dow continues, his tone reflecting earnestness without turning up the intensity, “if they don’t have a history of criminal activity,” but they were arrested subsequent to their deployment, then the court, with its mentors and therapists, “is a far better solution then keeping them in jail.”

Thirty-three-year-old Paso Robles resident Audifret Sanchez is among the combat veterans currently immersed in the VTC program; he agreed to openly discuss his situation with a reporter.

Sanchez was greatly impressed with several uniformed U.S. Marines who visited his school in Paso Robles when he was in the eighth grade, and “ever since then I knew what I wanted to do, and what I wanted to be — a Marine.” So at age 18, he joined.

He served as a combat infantryman in Iraq beginning in March 2003 and used his “survival instincts … hoping I wouldn’t be killed the next day.” During that tour of duty he “drank heavily,” and when he got out he continued heavy liquor consumption. “It was a coping method,” Sanchez said, and it led to “blackouts” and ultimately to an arrest after being charged with aggression against his wife.

While waiting in a holding cell for his initial appearance before a judge, Sanchez saw a VTC poster, but he wasn’t aware that the nightmares and the battle-related flashbacks he experienced — his post traumatic moments — qualified him for VTC services.

His public defender helped him make contact with the treatment court in June 2013 and, after a psychological evaluation determined that he was indeed suffering from PTSD, he began getting the help he continues receiving today.

“It has turned my life around, emotionally and physically,” Sanchez explained during a phone interview Monday, April 14.

“They have been teaching me how to cope with the nightmares and flashbacks; how to recognize the triggers that set them off without having a heart attack or self medicating.”

He attends group meetings every other Wednesday and has a one-on-one with a psychologist once or twice a week, “depending on my symptoms. The program has had a big impact on my recovery and my life.

“It’s not the addiction anymore because I don’t have the urge to drink. It’s dealing with the flashbacks and nightmares. When I see the flashbacks … explosions, helicopters, airplanes, insects … it’s like reliving them all over, like I was still there.”

Sanchez attends Cuesta College’s North County campus full time in a work-study program. He receives benefits from the Post-9/11 GI Bill and is in his second semester towards an AA degree in family studies. “I’m going for a Ph.D. in psychology,” he declared with buoyant optimism in his voice.

Cambria resident Greg Sanders, an attorney and a Vietnam vet, who was involved in the organizational efforts to establish the court, said, “We would not have a veterans treatment court today if it wasn’t for Dan. Despite repeated attempts to get District Attorney (Gerald Shea) and or Tim Covello, to help out, they wouldn’t.

“Finally, begrudgingly, after everything was in place, the DA’s office went along. It would not have happened without Dan Dow.”

In an interesting way, Dow’s approach to problem-solving mirrors Teddy Roosevelt’s iconic tenet: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” And should Dow, an Iraq veteran who is supported by police officers’ associations countywide, be victorious in June, he won’t likely change his speaking style, but he’ll positively wield a bigger stick.

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