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Battling back: US veterans help each other

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Shannon Stapleton/Reuters/File

(Read caption) US Army Private First Class Peter Gong, a Vietnam War veteran and member of the National Guard, stands in front of a US flag during an American Legion event in Hempstead, N.Y. in July. In Florida, a program called Veterans Helping Veterans matches a mentor veteran with one who is struggling to adjust to civilian life.

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Some former soldiers appearing the new veterans' court in Broward County, Fla, aren’t just getting fines, probation, or counseling.

They’re getting mentors.

Veterans Helping Veterans — modeled after a successful program in Palm Beach County, Fla. — pairs seasoned former military service men and women with veterans, of all ages and from all wars, who have ended up on the wrong side of the law.

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Though created in 2010 through Broward’s Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, known as RSVP, the program didn’t start thriving until being connected to the county’s Veterans’ Treatment Court, which opened in May.

Now, it’s receiving three to four court referrals weekly (although any veteran can apply for assistance) and has 18 mentors, who under RSVP guidelines must be age 55 or older. Impact Broward CEO and president John Gargotta, whose nonprofit agency manages the RSVP program, is recruiting more.

“The court has created a lot of momentum,” RSVP director Edward Gray said. “But we know there are a lot of veterans who aren’t aware of the program, who aren’t going to their American Legion or VFW for support.”

The veterans’ court is designed to channel people who suffer from behavior, mental health, or substance abuse issues connected to their service into counseling or treatment programs. Department of Veterans Affairs psychologists first evaluate all candidates.

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Palm Beach County was one of the first judicial circuits in the state to have a veterans court, holding its first session in 2010. The county’s court-mandated mentorship program, run by the nonprofit Faith, Hope, Love, Charity, Inc. in West Palm Beach, now is assisting 55 veterans, and has 25 more who have “graduated.”

Mentors can “keep veterans who are arrested out of the revolving door [of the justice system],” said program coordinator Michael Coleman, who served 21 years in the Air Force. “We want to bring them back and give them a second chance at being good citizens.”

Coleman said veteran-to-veteran mentorship has been so effective at getting offenders back on track that several other counties are asking his agency for guidance on setting up their programs.

“We see a veteran who came into court looking like he was down on his last bit of luck come back in 12 or 15 months with a smile on his face and ready to go back into society,” he said.

Census figures show that south Florida has one of the largest veterans’ populations in the state, with more than 118,000 living in Broward and Palm Beach counties.

Defendants in veterans’ courts — many charged with addiction-related misdemeanors such as drug possession or resisting arrest — still are sentenced and penalized for their crimes. But Broward County Judge Edward Merrigan, an Army Reserve lieutenant colonel, knows the AA meetings and counseling he orders can be more helpful than jail time.

“A veteran mentor is an extension of that,” said Merrigan, who makes the referrals to Veterans Helping Veterans. “I want someone who will check on them and encourage them. Their lawyers can’t do that.”

Veterans Helping Veterans is funded by the federal Corporation for National & Community Service, through RSVP.

Mentors are people who understand why a young man who just returned from Afghanistan can’t sleep or flies into a rage over nothing. Mentors are a ride to a nearby Veterans Affairs clinic, a phone call after a bad day, help with a resume, a guide back into civilian life.

Jeremy Bortz, of Lauderhill, Fla., came back to a construction job in 2006 after multiple Army combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he struggled to control his anger, with inexplicable fits of weeping when he talked to co-workers about what he had seen and done.

“I’ve been out six years, and I can still smell the dead people,” Bortz said he told them.

Sometimes, Bortz said, he would leave the house and forget how to find his way back home.

The VA eventually certified Bortz as disabled due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Unable to work, he ended up in veterans’ court last month after being charged with a misdemeanor — and was paired with Gargotta, who served with a medivac unit in Vietnam.

The two agree that while their wars were different, their experiences were similar. Gargotta is familiar with VA disability claims, and Bortz said he feels more comfortable accepting help from a fellow combat veteran.

“Any guy in the service will respect a guy who fought in Vietnam,” he said.

Battle scars often aren’t on the surface, and some veterans who stand before Merrigan were discharged long ago. Edwin Stafford, who has been homeless and in and out of jail for years, served in the Coast Guard almost 30 years ago.

At 51, he found himself before Merrigan on drug charges, and the judge suggested Stafford might benefit from a mentor. Now, after a few meetings with Gargotta, Stafford has signed up for vocational culinary training and is searching for a permanent place to live.

“I’m learning life skills now,” he said.

• For more information on the Veterans Helping Veterans mentorship program or to become a mentor, call 954-484-7117 or go to seniorvolunteerservices.org. For information on Palm Beach County’s volunteer mentor program, call 561-968-1612 or go to standown.org.

©2012 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) Visit the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) at www.sun-sentinel.com. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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