SLO County’s Veterans Treatment Court changes lives, offers a second chance

Correction: This article has been updated to correct an error regarding graduate Kessler Smith’s criminal case. Smith was not arrested for making a violent threat, but was later charged with the misdemeanor prior to entering the court program.

When Kessler Smith returned home after more than five years fighting for his country in Iraq and Afghanistan, he couldn’t land a job — even as a door employee at a local Wal-Mart.

He felt alienated, undervalued. And it made him angry.

“My pride was just hurt. No one cared about my service,” Smith said. “I wasn’t looking for a red carpet or a ticker-tape parade, you know, any of that. I didn’t even know what I was looking for.”

Smith, 27, of Templeton served as a squad leader in the Marine Corps and saw heavy combat. After landing at a Phoenix airport, he was spit on in uniform, he said.

Like countless other veterans in Smith’s position, he turned to alcohol.

“Every day, waking up, I’d get pissed. So I turned into a hermit, stayed at the house. I drank,” he said. “I just gave up. And then I got in trouble.”

In February 2015, he was charged with a misdemeanor for threatening domestic violence against his girlfriend, a crime that one San Luis Obispo County judge said is unfortunately common among distressed veterans returning from service.

But nearly 18 months later, Smith’s outlook has changed, he said. He’s received substance abuse treatment and mental health counseling through the county’s Veterans Treatment Court, an intensive program that accepted Smith and four other local veterans as its largest graduating class since the program began in June 2013.

The program allows veterans who’ve entered into the criminal justice system for non-serious offenses to receive rehabilitation from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs if there can be a connection established between the person’s crimes and trauma received during the course of their service.

The nation’s first program was created in Buffalo, New York, in 2008. Similar programs now exist in about 20 California counties. San Luis Obispo County was the 15th in the state to implement its program, which is a joint effort among the Superior Court, the District Attorney’s Office, the Probation Department, the Sheriff’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office and county Veterans Services.

Superior Court Judge John Trice, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, has presided over the local VTC since its creation. The program took several years to come to fruition and some hard selling on the part of local officials such as District Attorney Dan Dow and former Veterans Services Officer Dana Cummings.

On Wednesday, Trice and a panel of local officials from the agencies involved awarded five of the program’s participants with certificates of completion for successfully completing the program. The minor charges against them will now be expunged.

Before the ceremony — which included a color guard presentation of the U.S. and California flags — Trice said the program keeps a steady clientele of about 15 people at all times. Fifteen veterans have graduated from the program, and Trice said they have stayed out of trouble with the law.

Most participants who qualify suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, a traumatic brain injury or severe substance addiction. A few women who have entered into the program suffered some form of sexual trauma during their service. Most people enter the legal system for domestic violence or alcohol and drug-related charges.

“What you would expect from this population is pretty predictable: drugs, alcohol, bar fights. Domestic violence is the most common,” Trice said. “You’re not going to find a lot of them embezzling money or something.”

Trice said the program allows the partner agencies to essentially bend over backwards to help veterans treat problems that underlie their respective criminal activity. As such, officials help them succeed through weekly classes, bi-monthly court progress hearings, regular meetings with a probation officer, and a mentoring program unlike any other offered through the court.

“They’re just not your standard probationers,” Trice said. “When we took these men and women in and asked them to serve their country; they weren’t broken.”

Andy Phillips, 42, of Arroyo Grande, who also graduated Wednesday, served as a U.S. Army paratrooper and weapons specialist for eight years. While serving in Iraq, Phillips spent most of his 18-month deployment searching about a dozen homes a day and leading “snatch-and-grab” missions.

“There was a lot of carnage,” Phillips said.

Returning home, he also found himself facing jail time for a charge of making a violent threat.

“We’re broken a little bit with these things we brought back from the sandbox with us,” Phillips told the packed courtroom after accepting his certificate. “(The program) has given us a second chance. We can walk down the street with our heads held high.”

He added: “This is a great day.”

Smith has since started his own business that he hopes will help other military returning from duty avoid the pitfalls he experienced. ACOV (short for “A Crew of Veterans”) Industries, a landscaping and construction company serving San Luis Obispo County, offers veterans steady and meaningful work. Word has spread, Phillips said, and he regularly fields calls from active duty military personnel inquiring about work after their service.

“It’s been real good,” Smith said. “The future’s going to be good.”

Phillips said he is involved in a vocational rehabilitation program through the Veterans Administration that includes hands-on computer training. Like Smith, Phillips said he’s looking to start his own business and move on with his life.

“What I’ve learned through the treatment court is, you know, there’s a lot of people that will put their name out (to) vouch for you … to help you open doors for yourself,” he said. “And that’s important — to be able to grow and prosper.”