Vets court opens in Cambria

EBENSBURG – While unveiling Cambria County’s new Veterans Court on Friday to a courtroom packed with county, law enforcement and court officials, President Judge Timothy Creany described the needs veterans face when caught on the wrong side of the law.

The Veterans Court program is designed to identify veterans with diagnosed conditions and help them to navigate the legal system and rehabilitate to civilian life. Veterans can work to have minor criminal offenses expunged from their records or plead guilty to more serious offenses in hopes of receiving lesser charges or sentences, officials said.

Creany shared the story of an unnamed U.S. Marine Corps reservist arrested for driving under the influence after four combat tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While stationed overseas, the young Marine’s convoy came under small-arms fire while on patrol, Creany said. A rocket-propelled grenade ricocheted off of the hood of the Marine’s vehicle without detonating.

But the vehicle struck an improvised explosive device and was damaged in the explosion. The Marine suffered physical and mental wounds in the attack, Creany said.

“I can’t imagine anyone else who would most likely suffer” from post-traumatic stress disorder and the consequences involved, Creany said.

A DUI conviction could have lead to a dishonorable discharge for the soldier – and a loss of military mental and physical health benefits, Creany said.

“We all agreed this young man deserved better than that, and he had earned better than that,” Creany said.

Through the Veterans Court, the Marine could be eligible to enroll in a peer mentorship program. Successful completion of the program could result in the charges being expunged from the veteran’s record.

But officials stressed the program is not a free pass for military veterans who find themselves in trouble with the law.

“This program is not a get-out-of-jail-free card,” said Tom Caulfield, president of Veterans Community Initiatives.

Veterans Community Initiatives partnered with the county and various agencies to train peer mentors for the specialty court.

Mentors will assist eligible veterans through the legal process and serve as a support mechanism for veterans, Caulfield said.

Only veterans with diagnosed problems and those who have committed non-violent crimes are eligible for the program, District Attorney Kelly Callihan said. The district attorney’s office is the “gatekeeper” and will work with law enforcement, magisterial district judges and veterans organizations to determine which individuals are eligible for enrollment.

The first case is expected to be heard Jan. 29, and about 20 veterans’ cases are eligible for review for inclusion in the program, Callihan said.

A “diversionary track” for first-time offenders will help veterans work toward dismissal of their charges, Callihan said. A second “incentive track” focuses on veterans entering a guilty plea and then working toward receiving lesser charges through successful completion of the program.

“I am committed to the program,” Callihan said. “I think it will be a success.”

Mirror Staff Writer Zach Geiger is at 946-7535.