Veterans express gratitude at Cambria court program

EBENSBURG – It isn’t often that someone charged with a crime and facing a possible prison term turns to the district attorney and a judge of a county and says “Thank you,” but that’s what Navy veteran Terrance E. Andrews of Johnstown did in the Cambria County Courthouse Tuesday morning.

Andrews was among nine veterans who for more than a year have been part of Cambria County’s Veterans Court, which was created to address the drug, alcohol and mental health problems that stemmed from their service to the nation.

Cambria District Attorney Kelly Callihan said Tuesday’s graduation in Judge Timothy P. Creany’s courtroom was an appropriate way to extend the long Memorial Day weekend.

It is the job of officials like Callihan and Creany to put people in jail for their offenses, but the Veterans Court took a different approach, providing treatment, close supervision and even mentors to help veterans turn away from the things that have gotten them into trouble and into the criminal justice system, Andrews explained.

“They gave us a forum to change our lives. … They gave us a chance to redeem ourselves,” he said after the unusual session of court adjourned.

Andrews explained that many veterans have seen things and done things and know about things that takes a toll when they arrive home.

The Veterans Court, he said, addresses the problems that eventually become evident when the veteran ends up in the criminal justice system. Andrews was there on a charge of driving under the influence.

He was buoyant on Tuesday, however, because he explained that his life has turned around. He has a job as a machinist, making parts for the Navy.

His life, he said, is good at this point.

Stephen Leipchack of Johnstown, a former Marine charged with driving under the influence more than a year ago, said the Cambria County Veterans Court helped him “tremendously.”

“It got me on the straight and narrow,” Leipchack said.

He said the program is tough. It requires periodic appearances and strict supervision.

Karen Esaias came to court with him Tuesday. She was a mentor assigned to Leipchack to give him someone to talk to and to discuss problems day or night.

He, too, is working on a new life, attempting to graduate as a registered nurse.

Callihan said her support for a veterans court was born five years ago when Johnstown native and Altoona resident Nicholas Horner was arrested after killing a high school student and a retiree in two Altoona robberies.

Months before his Altoona shooting spree, Horner, an Army veteran suffering from post traumatic stress after three tours in Iraq, was arrested in Cambria County for a DUI. Police also found drug paraphernalia in his vehicle.

“Could we have helped him? … Could we have saved lives?” she asked herself.

Creany, himself a veteran, called Veterans Court “a team effort,” but he said, “The struggle isn’t over yet. We hope you can make the right choices from here on out.”

President Commissioner Doug Lengenfelder said to the veterans, “The courts are recognizing [that] you are a special case.”

He issued a challenge to the veterans, telling them, “You all know what it takes. … Do what is right. Do that for yourself, your country and your family.”

Listening to the give and take between court officials and the veterans was 65-year-old Larry Ross of Altoona, who, because of a DUI in Cambria County years ago, was among the first graduates of the Cambria Veterans Court.

A Marine, a Vietnam veteran of the battles around Khe Sanh, said that the Veterans Court has changed his life.

Ross said the toughest thing for a veteran to do is “admitting it to yourself that you’ve got problems.”

Many of those problems stem from their days in the service of their country, noting, “People have experiences in wars.”

He is now retired but returned to the court Tuesday to give support to the new graduates.

“The program is working,” he said.

The message from the veterans was pretty straight forward.

Alex Stantz, 46, of Johnstown stated, “I just want to say thank you.”

Then came Stephen Strayer, 47, of Lilly, who said the Veterans Court was one of the most positive experiences of his life.

“You don’t know how happy I am today,” said William Mulhern, 56, of Gallitzin.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.