Wayward veterans get 2nd chance in Missoula treatment court

Desert Storm veteran Jason Rawlings, center, and his mentor, Jon Crawford, (right) sit in Veterans Court before his graduation from the criminal treatment program. He is the program’s 28th graduate and plans to spend his time sober and helping others. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Jason Rawlings sat before the judge one last time on Monday, but not to hear his sentence or to plead his case. Rather, the Army veteran had come to graduate, and it was the judge who offered her appreciation for his efforts toward sobriety.

Not long ago, the Desert Storm veteran was deep into the bottle, getting drunk to escape his PTSD and the memories he brought home from Iraq. The substance abuse didn’t stop with liquor, and his life was moving in the wrong direction.

Rawlings, who speaks with a Texas drawl and plays the guitar, is now sober and fighting to stay that way. Speaking with honesty, he turned to the other young men enrolled in Veterans Court to offer his encouragement, urging them to stick it out and resolve their issues once and for all.

“When I first entered Veterans Court, I was very nervous and I didn’t think I’d gain much benefit,” he told them. “But I have to say, it’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. The best advice I can give anyone who has issues with substance abuse, you’re never going to be free from that craving, and you’ll never quit if you don’t decide in your heart and mind that you can never go back and do it again.”

The Missoula Co-Occurring Treatment Court with Veterans is better known as Veterans Court, and is part of a program launched in Buffalo, New York, in 2008. The criminal treatment court found its start in Missoula in 2011, making it the first court of its kind in Montana.

The program blends a number of resources, from the VA Montana Health Care System to local prosecutors, public defenders and Standing Master Brenda Desmond, who presides over the court and ensures those enrolled meet their weekly requirements.

It also comes with a team of volunteer mentors, several of whom were on hand Monday, each rising with their veteran as they appeared before the judge. For Jon Crawford, who served as Rawlings’ mentor throughout his time in the system, the graduation marked a special occasion.

“Working with Jason has always been a positive experience,” said Crawford. “As a mentor, we’re supposed to be drawing from our own life experiences to help these people get through their difficulties. But in actuality, we helped each other. I’m happy to call him my friend.”

Rawlings gives advice to his fellow veterans who are enrolled in the Missoula court program. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Rawlings still avoids the details of his service in Desert Storm. The middle-aged veteran was a young man when Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard invaded the oil-rich nation of Kuwait, sparking the largest U.S. mobilization since the Vietnam War.

As an aero-scout observer, Rawlings served aboard the OH-58 helicopter, though he was assigned to a ground unit in Iraq to locate mobile SCUD launchers and other targets of interest when his life changed.

“I can’t really talk too much about it – it still hurts a whole lot,” he said. “We saw some pretty horrific atrocities. The Iraqis hated those Kurdish people so much. Some of the things they did, it just tore me up. I couldn’t get over it.”

Rawlings left the service in 1992 and turned to the bottle, then to marijuana. It seemed innocuous at the time, offering a sense of security. But the next thing he knew, he’d lost several years of time and his “life was hell.”

He admits now to running away from his problems, and as long as he was stoned, he thought he was happy. He moved to Wyoming, but his problems followed him. He moved back to Texas, but they found him there as well. He tried Colorado for a year, but it wasn’t any different.

“It doesn’t matter where I’m at, my problems are coming with me,” he said. “I came to the point where I understood that this is a journey that will never end. My sobriety is something that I have to nurture and I have to keep it in mind – I have to work at it.”

Rawlings didn’t always see it that way. After getting drunk one day, he got into a fight that would land him in jail. As it turned out, he was a perfect match for Veterans Court, which looks to rehabilitate veterans coping with the adverse effects of war, PTSD, substance abuse and traumatic brain injury.

Standing Master Brenda Desmond, who presides over the Missoula Veterans Court, quizzes one of the veterans who missed a mandatory call in. His chance for a weekly program incentive was revoked as a result. The court has seen a 90-percent graduation rate since its inception in 2011. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Defendants like Rawlings must be referred to the court. Those eligible can be in the pretrial or post-trial phase, or on probation for any misdemeanor or non-violent felony. While the program can be completed in 12 months, it often takes 16 months to finish, and it comes with a rigorous series of steps that must be achieved along the way.

Desmond, who has presided over the court since its founding in 2011, said 46 veterans have been referred to the program. Six have been discharged, one moved, two died and nine are currently enrolled with the court, which has celebrated 28 graduations to date.

“Our graduation rate is 90 percent,” said Desmond. “It’s phenomenal for drug courts, but less surprising, I think, for veterans courts because of the veterans’ accomplishments prior to them going temporarily off their life plan and landing in the criminal justice system.”

The night before his graduation, Rawlings joined the members of his upstart band for a show at the VFW in Missoula. The event marked the first time they’d played outside the basement of the Zootown Arts Community Center.

They want to call themselves “The Band of Brothers.”

Rawlings, who has a penchant for Lynyrd Skynyrd, found himself in a familiar situation the night they played. A fan bought the band a round of shots. Rawlings passed it up, saying he couldn’t drink.

He didn’t want to drink.

“That was a good feeling for me, to know that even had I not had the monitor on my ankle, I wasn’t going to drink,” he said. “I had to drive home. I have other responsibilities in my life, and maintaining sobriety is one of my top priorities.”

It reminds him of a song from the 1990s that says, “Don’t fall down now, you may never get up.” He understands the lyrics, saying he’d fallen down several times, lying flat for weeks in a miserable state.

He’d lost jobs over it and picked random fights with random people, including those in line at Walmart. The topics of capitalism, taxes and Citizens United would set him off for reasons he couldn’t explain.

“When they (U.S. Supreme Court) decided that corporations were people and money is speech, I started telling everybody that the next time you file your income taxes, you also need to file a lawsuit, because the government is infringing upon your First Amendment right,” he said. “If making money is speech, and they’re taking some of your money away, that’s an infringement of your speech. I said and did things I really couldn’t explain.”

After some urging, Rawlings got a neuro-psychological exam at the VA and was diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injury. It helped him understand his irrational behavior, its symptoms and effects. Getting clean also helped him adjust his focus, and with the help of the Veterans Court, he’s learned where his priorities now stand.

Brenda Desmond awards Rawlings with a certificate for completing the Veterans Court program. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

“The ultimate decision for me was when I decided to stop being a victim,” Rawlings said. “When a person considers themselves as a victim, it’s easy to say it’s not my fault because I’ve got all these problems. When you realize it’s your decision to either use or be sober, it really helps, and it helped me a whole lot.”

Midway through his tenure in Veterans Court, Rawlings was asked what he was grateful for. His response included the love of his family, his sobriety, the forgiveness of God, and Veterans Court.

Completing the program has earned him accolades, including that of Sen. Steve Daines. The Montana Republican sent a letter for Rawlings’ graduation, which was read by Daines’ veterans representative Bill Hilshey.

“Substance abuse difficulties are frightening enemies that must be overcome,” Hilshey read. “It’s a daunting task facing these difficulties, and I’m sure coming to veterans court to face the judge for the first time was just as daunting. You have proven yourself to be courageous and determined, and have shown yourself to be an individual others can look up to.”

Rawlings agreed.

“There’s a balance to be found, and I think I’ve found it,” he said. “I want to give back to the court and the veterans’ community at large. I would never have done this and would not be at this point in my life if it weren’t for the court and the wonderful people here.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com