By Valerie Schremp Hahn - St. Louis Post Dispatch


ST. LOUIS • Nick wanted to kill himself with heroin.

He was already dealing with horrible images seared into his brain as an Army infantryman who was in the Pentagon during the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Then two years later, he was almost killed in a car crash.

And nearly two years ago, his 2-year-old son was killed in an all-terrain vehicle accident. Nick was sitting with him on the vehicle when the boy apparently hit the throttle. Nick fell off the back, and the ATV struck a tree with the toddler still aboard.

Nick, who did not want his full name used in this story for fear of damaging his business, said he wanted to die, too. He went from a clean-cut veteran who had never used drugs to a heroin addict. "I was using it as a means to an end," he recalls.

Nick was eventually charged with drug possession.

But this month, Nick, 31, of Eureka, is set to graduate from Veterans Treatment Court, a special program started in last January as part of the St. Louis Circuit Court.

The program is rigorous. Participants — all of them non-violent offenders — must attend support group meetings, submit to random drug tests and meet frequently with a judge and representatives of the Veterans Administration.

"It's a little like the military," said Nick. "They force you to do something and you learn from it. It's one of the best things you've ever done, but you never want to do it again."

About 12 veterans are attending the court in St. Louis. If they successfully complete the steps, the charges against them will be wiped from their records or they may be released early from court supervision.

The process takes from a year to around 18 months; Nick is set to be one of the first graduates.

The veterans drug court in St. Louis is the only one of its type in Missouri. Kansas City runs a similar one for misdemeanor offenders. In Illinois, Madison County has had a veterans court since March 2009. About 50 operate nationwide.

Court officials from the 35th Circuit, in southeastern Missouri, plan to visit the St. Louis operation soon, with thoughts of creating a regional version for 22 counties there.

Some jurisdictions have specialized drug courts focused on families, juveniles, or defendants with mental health issues. The first veterans drug court started in Buffalo in 2008.

It's the fastest-growing drug court type in the country, said Christopher Deutsch, spokesman for the National Association for Drug Court Professionals. It's a natural way to connect the resources of the Department of Veterans Affairs to the resources available to the courts.

"A lot of the folks who are working in these courts saw what happened to the previous generation of these veterans," he said. "There's a real desire to not repeat the mistakes of the past, and to intervene early and to ensure that these folks can get on track."

In St. Louis, the veterans drug court team meets in Commissioner James Sullivan's chambers about every other week to discuss the progress of participants before meeting with them in court.

Matt Miller, a social worker with the Department of Veterans Affairs, serves as a liaison between the VA hospitals and the courts. He can pull up veterans' medical records in court and schedule appointments, if needed.

Danielle Jones is the circuit attorney assigned to the drug court and Mallory Griep is a probation and parole officer. Both meet with vets to be sure they are fulfilling the court's requirements.

Bob Murphy is a VA volunteer and mentor to the veterans. "I've lost some people who were close to me that were like brothers. I can't do a damn thing for the dead," said Murphy, a Vietnam veteran. "In order to honor them and those that gave the ultimate sacrifice, the way I could do that is by helping the living. That's where I come from."

The court is looking for more volunteer mentors, Sullivan said.

During court, each veteran takes turns going to the bench to talk with Sullivan. It is informal and friendly; they talk about bowling or the Pittsburgh Steelers —and the veteran's progress.

"I have one word for how you've been doing in treatment groups — awesome," Sullivan recently told one vet who was there as a persistent drunken driver.

But a veteran who missed a drug test and a treatment meeting found himself sent to jail for a night.

Another, a 43-year-old Gulf War veteran and alcohol abuser who had been late for a drug test, was ordered to do eight hours of community service at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. He said he understood there are consequences, and said he is grateful to be held accountable by Sullivan.

"He treats me with respect," the veteran said. "I think that's all a lot of people ask for.