We all hope to be first at something during our lives, and Army Sgt. Carl Russell recently claimed those honors as the first graduate of the Camden County Veterans Treatment Court.

We all hope to be first at something during our lives, and Army Sgt. Carl Russell recently claimed those honors as the first graduate of the Camden County Veterans Treatment Court.

Circuit Court Associate Judge Aaron Koeppen set aside his courtroom demeanor and informally gathered Treatment Court team members. Sergeant Russell and participants in the program around in Courtroom B of the Justice Center Courts Building.

Judge Koeppen sat among the group almost in a fireside chat atmosphere, addressing the attendees and lauding the program that is designed to help meet the needs of veterans who have been identified in the criminal justice system with substance abuse and/or mental health issues.

“This is not just about staying sober,” he explained. “It’s about changing your lives and what you are doing to change your lives. We’re looking at the long term and how we can help you create a workable career path.”

The Veterans Treatment Court is a special court charged with trying cases of minor offenses that involve veterans, especially those diagnosed with service-related illnesses. Sergeant Russell is wheelchair-bound after being severely injured in a Middle East conflict.

The Veterans Treatment Court provides veterans with the opportunity to lead a productive and law abiding life through a comprehensive treatment program and judicial supervision. Veteran participants are provided services that address substance abuse, mental health, unemployment, homelessness, medical needs and more.

The goals are:

•Introduce the participants to an ongoing process of recovery designed to help them become stable, employed and substance free while continuing mental health care through community and peer groups of the Veterans Administration.

•Protect the public

•Reduce participant contact with the criminal justice system

•Reduce costs associated with criminal case processing and re-arrest

“If we lose hope, we give up,” Judge Koeppen reminded the participants.

The Veterans Court program is staffed with a team of professionals dedicated to helping the participants succeed.

“We support you and we will always support you,” Judge Koeppen said.

Sergeant Russell was presented a plaque and a Veterans Treatment Court coin for successfully completing the program. There were others in the program who have advanced through the various steps introduced during the Veterans Treatment Court. Each gave an update on their progress and received encouragement from Judge Koeppen and others on the team to continue.

“Everyone on the team knows that when I first got involved I was dead set against it,” Sergeant Russell said. “But then I realized how amazing everyone (on the team) was. You came into my house, came to my kitchen and sat down. It was true caring.”

Sergeant Russell offered no bitterness for his wounds, telling team members and other participants that “if you keep the military mindset – right place, right time, right uniform – and you do what you’re supposed to do and knock out the mission everything will be great.”

The team of professionals “was there 100 percent helping me and making sure I was okay. They will be there for you, too,” he told the other veteran participants.

He urged the participating veterans to reach out to other veterans as well.

“A lot of times it’s easier to talk to a vet rather than a shrink,” Sergeant Russell said. “Once you get that wall broken down, it makes a difference. To have that soldier who has been there, done that, they’ve done it themselves and relying on each other helps it go away. Having that other guy to talk to makes a difference rather than talking with someone who’s never dealt with it. I’ll be there for you if you want.”

Support staff

The team that comprises the Veterans Treatment Court includes:

Judge Aaron Koeppen

Danielle Malone, coordinator

Doug Kinde, assistant prosecuting attorney

Dusty Hill, Court Probationary Services and testing officer

Lt. Jim Elkin and Deputy Joe Bentley, Camden County law enforcement officers

Bran Byler, probation and parole

Kristi Stephens, Veteran Justice Outreach Specialist 

History

The first Veterans Treatment Court was established in 2008 in Buffalo, N.Y., by Judge Robert Russell. It’s been used as a model for establishing other veterans’ courts around the country. Judge Koeppen became concerned in recent years with how many veterans he was seeing coming in contact with the criminal justice system. In 2018, he met with The Office of State Court Administrators to begin the program locally. On June 20, 2019, Judge Koeppen held his first veterans-only docket.