Just being a friend

When Anthony Hanlon of Altoona came home from Vietnam in 1968, he thought the war some 12,000 miles away was behind him.

Hanlon, only 20-years-old at the time, would move on with his life. He worked for a coal company in his native Cambria County. He became a coal miner until a back injury sidelined him, and he went to school and became a drug and alcohol counselor.

Then, after 30 years, he said, he “gets hit” with post-traumatic stress stemming from his experiences in Vietnam. He turned to the Veterans Administration for help.

Just two years ago, Hanlon, a father of four and grandfather of 12, was reading the newspaper about a new program in the Cambria County Court of Common Pleas in Ebensburg.

President Judge Timothy P. Creany, a Marine veteran of Vietnam, and a team including individuals from the Van Zandt VA Medical Center in Altoona, the Cambria County District Attorney, public defender and parole and probation offices were creating a Veterans Court.

The idea was to divert veterans who enter the criminal justice system for crimes such as DUI, drug possession and simple assault, to a court that would address the problems of PTSD, substance abuse or mental illness that had roots deep in their war experiences.

Hanlon read that the program would include mentors or veterans who would help those on the wrong side of the law get through a tough Veterans Court program that includes many meetings, court appearances and participation in treatment programs sponsored by the VA and other agencies.

He said to himself, “That is something I know I should be doing.”

He attended a training session to become a veterans’ mentor and in the process became friends with the program’s Peer Mentor Coordinator Tom Caulfield, who is also part of the court team that reviews cases in Ebensburg with the judge every two weeks.

Hanlon and Caulfield have much in common. Hanlon served 14 months in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968, and Caulfield was stationed at “a small fire base” in Vietnam for 13 months in 1970-71.

When they came home, there wasn’t much hurrah. Hanlon said returning soldiers were greeted with, at best, apathy, and at its worst, “downright disgusting hostility.”

Caulfield remembers going to the downtown of his hometown after his war experience, and one of his friends came up to him and said, “Hey, Tom. Where you been?”

Things have changed in that respect, Caulfield said from his Veterans Community Initiatives office in the Hiram G. Andrews Center at 727 Goucher St., Johnstown.

“People are starting to see the military and veterans in a different light,” he explained.

He said there are symposiums that address the issues faced by veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The public is more aware of the need for suicide prevention, employment initiatives and the stresses caused by war.

“The awareness is so much better,” Caulfield said.

Hanlon, who rarely discusses his war experiences, over the past 18 months has been a mentor to three veterans.

And he agreed last year to talk about PTSD to police officers attending a conference in State College.

He opened that session, he said, by telling the officers quite frankly that at one point in his life they were the enemy.

That attitude has changed, but Hanlon explained, “I could have used this program when I got out.”

A mentor … a friend

Caulfield said the Veterans Court is a demanding program.

“It’s not an easy program to get the treatment you need. It’s not a free pass out of jail,” he said.

Bonnie Clark, the veterans justice outreach coordinator at Van Zandt, said those who come to her are evaluated by a professional, and then a team designs a treatment program for the men and women in the Veterans Court.

The VA program has group programs for those suffering from PTSD, substance abuse or mental health issues.

There are also outpatient programs.

The veterans in the court have many appointments they must keep, and that does not just mean on the treatment side. They must stay in touch with the parole and probation offices. They attend a Monday morning court review with Creany every two weeks.

This tug and pull on the veterans from the VA and the justice system, piled on top of the problems like PTSD that they are trying to deal with, can be a struggle, and this is where the mentor enters the picture.

Hanlon said his initial meeting with his first mentee involved having a cup of coffee at Nicoletta’s Italian Restaurant on 17th Street in Altoona.

His role, he assures his mentee, is not that of “spy,” as some veterans court enrollees may suggest.

He is not an attorney giving legal advice or a therapist. He is not there to talk politics or to be a drinking buddy.

The mentor is someone who has been through the same experiences of war as the man or woman to whom they are assigned, and the mentor’s task is to just be a friend, to listen and to make sure the mentee makes his or her appointments.

The bond between the mentor and mentee is honesty, as Hanlon pointed out.

He said he “fired” one mentee who was not telling him the truth about keeping his appointments and about the way he was conducting his life.

Hanlon said sometimes he checks in with his veteran but normally waits for him or her to call.

Hanlon said in one case his mentee was having trouble getting to court because of his job. His advice was to contact Judge Creany and explain the problem. He said the judge is supportive of the men and women in the court.

Caulfield stresses to the mentors that in assuming their volunteer role they are making “a real commitment in time and effort.”

But, Hanlon said one of the guys he mentored was a “delight” to be around. After the veteran was arrested a second time for DUI, he realized he needed the program, and he became serious about the effort to change his life.

Judge Creany strongly supports the mentoring program because the mentors have been through the same experiences as the veterans in the program.

He said the veterans feel comfortable talking to their mentors.

Caulfield agreed that someone like Hanlon who has been through so much has the trust of the veterans in the program.

The mentors, the judge said, “are not to be an arm of the court. They are there for the client.”

In reciting some of the cases where the mentors have played a big role, Creany described a veteran who faced a variety of challenges. He had physical problems, a child with special needs, just one thing after another, and the mentor helped the veteran through it all.

He complimented the team he works with, but he also talked about the veterans themselves:

“The attitude we see in these veterans is not what we normally see. They come in with the attitude, ‘Let’s get this done.'”

Veterans Court in Cambria County has been a success beyond expectations so far. The court just held its second graduation ceremony.

Caulfield said there are 59 veterans in the court, but only 21 mentors available.

This is why some of the mentors have had to work with more than one veteran. Of the 21 mentors, eighteen are male. Eight of the mentors come from the Vietnam era, four from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. One of the mentors is on active duty.

The veterans court and mentoring programs are relatively new.

Clark explained the mentoring effort began in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008.

The slogan of the mentors in Buffalo was “leave no veteran behind.”

The court and the mentoring effort have become popular in Pennsylvania with 17 counties adopting a program, Clark said.

Blair County President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva this year authorized a veterans court where the focus of the program is at the magisterial district court level, drawing veterans into the program quickly after their initial arrests.

Caulfield said the mentoring effort is growing. A training program will be held on June 19 at the Hiram Andrews Center.

Ideally he would like to see the program grow to the point where a female mentor would be assigned to a female in the court, a Marine to a Marine, and so forth.

He is also encouraging graduates of the Veterans Court to become mentors themselves.

But that may be a step for the future. Hanlon explained how he pushed his experiences to the back of his mind for 30 years, and in talking about his mentoring experience he became emotional when he explained that his youngest son, an Army veteran who has served five tours in Iraq, a total of 54 months, has said to him, “Dad, I see why you never talked about all of it.”