“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”

Those words were spoken by President John F. Kennedy for the first time shortly after Veterans Day 1963. On Friday, they were reiterated by Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea on the lawn outside the Steele County Courthouse as a crowd of people joined her to honor the nations POWs and MIAs as well as look forward to helping today’s veterans.

Gildea joined Third District Court Judge Ross L. Leuning and a group of dedicated individuals who have worked for the last four years to launch the second Veterans Treatment Court in Minnesota for a special ribbon cutting ceremony.

The Veterans Treatment Court is designed to provide support and resources for veterans involved with the criminal justice system, rather than punishment. These courts are modeled after mental health and drug courts, which were established to emphasize treatment rather than incarceration.

The program includes frequent court visits, participation in treatment programs, and regular testing for substance abuse where applicable. There will also be a representative from the VA at every session in an effort to get each participant connected to the benefits and resources they are entitled to.

While the Veterans Treatment Court of Minnesota’s Third Judicial District has been operating as a pilot program since March, Friday’s ceremony marked its introduction to the public as well as showing the high-level support the 11-county-wide program continues to receive.

“We have the head of the executive branch and the head of the judicial branch coming both coming together in support of this program,” Leuning said in reference to Gildea and Gov. Tim Walz, who spoke at a second ribbon-cutting ceremony in Fillmore County later Friday. “It’s hard to believe that we have such high level and unified support.”

Leuning, who serves as the presiding judge for the program’s western location — Steele County — quickly became the group’s leader as the only veteran on the bench in the district. Leuning served as a Navy JAG officer for 31 and another six in the Army National Guard. He was deployed to Iraq and served as a military judge for four years.

“I did what every good sailor does: salute and say ‘aye-aye!’” Leuning laughed. “But I am very happy to be doing this, I have a heart for my fellow vets and I am glad that we are bringing this about.”

Leuning said that throughout his years he has personally known many veterans who had difficulty adjusting back into the civilian world following a deployment and that they could have benefited greatly from a vets court program.

According to Justice For Vets, a division of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, combat experience has left a growing number of veterans with issues such as PTSD and traumatic brain injury, resulting in one in five veterans with symptoms of a mental health disorder or cognitive impairment. The nonprofit also states that one in six veterans who served in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operations Iraqi Freedom suffers from a substance use issue. Research continues to draw a link between substance use and combat-related mental illness, which, left untreated, can directly lead to involvement in the criminal justice system.

“Yesterday, 20 veterans died by suicide. Today, 20 veterans will die by suicide. Tomorrow, 20 veterans will die by suicide,” Leuning said, adding that 70% of those veterans never took advantage of the resources that they are entitled to. “If we can get veterans tapped in to an assistance with addiction or mental health or violence not only can we catch them before criminal behavior escalates, we can save lives. Those of the kinds of things a veterans court can help reduce.”

While some veterans may return home with physical wounds, both Leuning and Gildea discussed the invisible wounds that lurk behind the scenes for many veterans. As they struggle, Leuning said they may not even be aware of the resources readily available for them at local, state and federal levels. Veterans Court aims to change that.

“I think the courts have been doing similar things to this in a less formal way,” Leuning said. “If I have a vet come in front of me in a regular court session I usually try to work with them and the probation office to get them tapped into the VA. Veterans court will streamline this process through more intensive supervision, but you get a much better end result and you get there quicker.”

The Veterans Treatment Court of Minnesota’s Third Judicial District serves Rice, Steele, Fillmore, Waseca, Freeborn, Mower, Dodge, Olmsted, Wabasha, Winona and Houston counties. While most of the counties in the district are not large enough to support their own in-house sessions for the program, both the western and eastern locations are equipped with ITV so that veterans from all counties can participate.

“Going to war is a big event in a person’s life. To be in that world and then just try to come back and be normal – our brain just doesn’t function that way,” Leuning said. “The first sign that a veteran is struggling is their appearance in our judicial system, and now we are at a point where we can catch those people early in their struggles. That’s really the beauty of the veterans court.”

“This Veterans Court is a community-wide commitment to supporting our vets and promising them that we will always stand beside them, no matter the obstacles or struggles they face when they come home,” Gildea said. “The simple fact is that this program will improve the lives of Minnesota veterans and their families.”

“We owe such a debt to our veterans,” she continued. “The Veterans Treatment Court is helping us pay some of that back.”

The Veterans Treatment Court currently has seven participants. Leuning said that once federal funding is secured, they hope to hire on a program coordinator to increase that number to 25 participants in both the western and eastern locations. Judge Joseph Chase is the presiding judge for the eastern location of the program held in Fillmore County.

Reach Reporter Annie Granlund at 444-2378 or follow her on Twitter @OPPAnnie.

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