When Olathe resident Garrett Cleek returned from Afghanistan, he didn’t think twice about being hyper-vigilant, having terrible nightmares, or feeling the need to carry his firearm with him everywhere.
Post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries, which are common in veterans returning from combat zones, often lead to all kinds of strange — and sometimes dangerous — behaviors. Occasionally, it also lands these veterans in trouble with the law.
For example, Cleek, who was a combat medic in the U.S. Army, was arrested for assault, but he also could have faced drug charges were it not for the Veterans Treatment Court diversion program at the Johnson County District Courthouse.
Law enforcement officials give every veteran arrested in Johnson County the option to apply for the treatment program. If they complete it successfully, the felony charge does not stay on their record.
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“Judges ask some tough questions,” said Colleen Abraham, coordinator for Veterans Treatment Court. “They’re all sitting in the courtroom hearing each other’s cases. They know that’s coming, and I think that’s a part of that engaging. It falls back into the whole military mentality. You’re being held accountable.”
Before every court session, Judge Timothy McCarthy, Judge Kelly Ryan, prosecutors, probation officers, staff members from Veterans Affairs and Johnson County Mental Health, and others meet and discuss updates on every veteran’s case.
After a graduation ceremony Oct. 25, Johnson County’s Veterans Treatment Court, which was launched in January 2016, now has five veterans who have successfully completed the typically 18-month program.
So far, 32 veterans have entered the program and only two have left without graduating.
Not everyone is eligible. Offenders with long criminal histories, crimes that are above a level-four felony, or who have no treatment needs won’t make it past the initial screening and get kicked back to regular court. Participants also must qualify for VA benefits or live in Johnson County.
For those who are approved, the path remains difficult, but it can be life-changing.
“When I interviewed with the district attorney and the assistant, I didn’t feel like a criminal,” Cleek said. “I’m not — I’ve never been in trouble before. The tone of this whole thing has been like a hand up, not a hand-out. ... People are non-accusatory.”
Cleek, who graduated from the program Oct. 25 after 18 months of treatment, said he’s had just as many friends die from suicide at home as those who died in combat.
“I was on my way there,” he said. “I wanted to do it. I was making a plan.”
Having his program mentor, Vietnam veteran Dave Stroman, available to listen to him and talk with him changed Cleek’s outlook.
“Dave probably saved my life,” Cleek said. “I don’t think he knows that, but he probably did. He’s always been there, and he checks up on me. ... It’s like a bond you don’t have commonly. I’ve got best friends I’ve known from childhood, but they’ve never had someone actively try to (really) kill them. And Dave has. I have. ... We can talk about stuff and just let go and not have to hold back or justify emotions.”
After getting screened for the program, Cleek said he received a 70-percent disability rating for war-related PTSD.
Each individual gets treatment according to his or her specific needs through either Johnson County Mental Health or the VA. Cleek attended group and individual therapy, as well as undergoing treatment for cognitive processing.
Every participant must submit to drug and alcohol screening twice a week and test clean. If they slip up, they don’t automatically get kicked out, but that particular soberiety period restarts and additional treatment may be required.
Assistant District Attorney Josh Brunkhorst, who’s been with Veterans Court since its inception, said he initially was “very skeptical, but now I’m a believer.”
After completing his stint with the program, Cleek hopes he can return again — this time as a mentor.
“If you can help in some way, you should, because it saves lives,” Cleek said. “It simply does. The thing that’s hard about this is that people who are willing to help don’t have X-ray vision. They don’t have a ... radar system. They can’t tell you’re there if you don’t say anything.”