$550K federal grant to help Missoula Veterans Court double capacity

Brenda Desmond, the standing master of Missoula Veterans Court, congratulates Bill Jo Chaffin during her recent graduation from the program. “I hope you’ll consider being a mentor,” Desmond told her. “You can make a big difference to someone there.” (Missoula Current file photo)

Over the past few years, funding for Missoula Veterans Court has trickled in, though it hasn’t been sustained and is often unpredictable.

But a $550,000 federal grant awarded to Missoula District Court and its underlying program for troubled vets will help change that equation, allowing it to double its capacity and better meet current demand.

“At the end of the first year, we will have expanded our capacity to 25 veterans,” Brenda Desmond, the court’s standing master in Missoula, said Monday. “Based on our experience and research, that’s the number of veterans who would qualify for our program in this area.”

Issued by the U.S. Department of Justice, the grant will enable the court to expand its treatment program on a number of fronts. That includes a full-time Veterans Court coordinator, enhanced case management services, and stronger evaluation of existing services.

“The need has been increasing, and we haven’t been able to meet that need, ever,” Desmond said. “We’re generating many new veterans coming home from conflict. We’re continuing to do that, and to the degree there’s a causal relationship there, there’s the demand.”

The Veterans Court program in Missoula was the first of its kind in the state, launched in 2011 to give vets who’d broken the law a chance to beat their addiction, treat their mental health disorder and get their life back on track.

Since then, the program has graduated 52 veterans and recorded an 85 percent graduation rate. But for most of that time, it also has struggled for funding, even though it costs less than $100,000 annually to operate.

Desmond views the program as a deal, both for veterans in the system and taxpayers. It also has proved successful in changing lives.

Upon graduating in 2017, Desert Storm veteran Jason Rawlings said: “It’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.” Earlier this year, U.S. Army veteran Billie Jo Chaffin said the program “may be a struggle, but you really have to look at what they’re trying to do for us.”

Both had struggled with alcohol addiction and PTSD, elements which the court is equipped to address through treatment. That, advocates say, is a better option than jail.

“Your typical Post-9/11 veteran was not drafted, stepped up, went off to war, and we need to do a better job when they come back,” Desmond said. “Most are strengthened by their experience, but there’s always a number who really struggle. They stepped up to be leaders, so let’s get them back to being leaders.”

Able to serve more veterans, Desmond said the court will also need more volunteers to help mentor those going through the program. The annual class is scheduled for early November.