Servicemen who found themselves in some type of trouble with the law graduated from Livingston County Veterans Treatment Court today.

The pledge of allegiance and a rendition of the star spangled banner started out the ceremony, which featured several speakers who said while everyone’s situation might be different; they are not alone in their struggles. Graduating servicemen were presented with certificates and coins by 53rd District Court Judge Carol Sue Reader, who presides over the program. The ceremony also featured a color guard and recognized the Veterans Court team and mentors.

Former NFL quarterback Eric Hipple has devoted his life to building awareness and breaking down stigmas surrounding depressive illnesses. He serves as an outreach specialist for the Eisenhower Center’s “After the Impact” program, which is a neuro-cognitive behavioral residential treatment facility serving military Veterans and former NFL players. Hipple said transitions are tough no matter what age and he personally struggled with the loss of his 15-year-old son, saying the trauma that followed put him down a self-destructive path and he initially failed programs.

Other speakers included Josh Parish, a Veteran who serves as the southeast Michigan regional coordinator for the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency; Joe Riker, a community liaison and Veteran who does outreach for Congressman Mike Bishop. Both shared their personal stories and past struggles, as well as how they overcame them.

Veterans in the current program observed during the ceremony, which was emotional at times - detailing the change from being seen as a hero to being in an orange jump suit. The program provides participants with the resources they need to succeed to overcome some of the many issues Veterans deal with upon returning home. Blame, guilt and self-loathing were common themes for those in the program. Many shared stories of dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and having their lives fall apart upon returning home, leading to substance abuse, marital and housing problems. Many take things day by day, sometimes one hour at a time and have initial doubts about the program such as graduate Joey H., a United States Marine. When he first got in the program, didn’t think he could do it, telling the audience he used to beat himself up a lot but through hard work with mentors, other vets and outreach programs, he can keep moving forward.

Many who end up in the program have some type of mental health or substance abuse issues according to Kevin Nagel, who serves as the public defender for the Veterans court. He tells WHMI it’s amazing when those in the program finally start to get it and take responsibility because when people first come in, there tends to be minimization or deflection and blaming others.

Judge Reader was visibly proud of the program but said she doesn’t do it for the recognition. She said a large team and mentors are all involved in making the program a success. When making a decision about someone in the program, Judge Reader says the entire team is involved and after consulting everyone, she comes up with a plan designed to make their lives better. Even if they don’t think so initially, she feels they realize it at the end. Some of the graduates were unable to make the ceremony and Judge Reader commented that as many learned through the program, there are consequences for actions. Thus, the graduates who were present will be getting their court fines and costs waived, while the others will not.

A special presentation was held at the end of the ceremony in which plaques were presented to Judge Reader by the American Legion Riders for her work and the program. (JM)