County treatment court offers help for vets dealing with trauma

In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Eric Tapia joined the U.S. Marines so he could be at the “tip of the spear,” leading his country through military action after it suffered its worst terrorist attacks.

But eight months into his deployment, Tapia was in a convoy traveling through Iraq’s Anbar Province when his vehicle was struck by a roadside explosive.

“I don’t remember much,” he told The Tribune on Monday. “I do remember fading in and out.”

While Tapia’s subsequent medical discharge would spare him from more shrapnel, his troubles would continue in a different form when he returned to the States.

“I wasn’t ready to re-integrate (into society) by the time I got home,” Tapia said. “I kept getting into legal trouble.”

Tapia was one of three local military veterans honored Monday for completing the requirements of the San Luis Obispo County Veterans Treatment Court. The court’s first graduating class — Tapia, U.S. Army vet Thomas Gregory and former Marine Audifret Sanchez Alvarado — was celebrated by local officials and those who helped them through the program.

The county’s veterans court launched about a year ago, on June 14, 2013. The court was designed to address the growing number of veterans committing crimes as a result of behavioral conditions related to their military experience.

The treatment court helps connect vets with counseling and medications they need to cope with their trauma, which in turn is intended to keep them from returning to the court system. But getting help requires a lot of work, said San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge John Trice, a veteran who presides over the court.

“The biggest challenge has been with the addicts,” Trice said, noting that it’s difficult for addicted drug users to keep appointments.

So far, Trice said, only one of the 18 participants has dropped out of the court, even though they are required to attend many meetings and court reviews — which he said can be more challenging than serving time in jail.

After his injuries, Tapia suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.

“I didn’t know how to cope with my issues,” he said. “I felt alone.”

To cope, he turned to methamphetamine — using and selling the drug. He wound up getting arrested four times for drug use. While Tapia faced years in prison, Trice recognized that he had potential.

Before the veterans court was implemented, Trice, a U.S. Air Force veteran, sent Tapia to a residential treatment facility for vets. Then Tapia was transitioned to the vets court.

As a result, Tapia said, he’s sober — and he has been accepted to study computer science at Cal State Northridge next fall.

“I’m looking forward to a new, better life,” Tapia said.

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