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The Third Branch

Outagamie County Veterans Court celebrates first year, honors its mentors

By John Powell, District Court Administrator

Last summer, Outagamie County joined a growing number of counties across the state in launching a veteran's court (in 2012 alone, five new veteran's court programs were started). With the benefit of one year's experience, we are taking a look at the elements that make our program successful – and chief among them is a reliable, dedicated team of mentors.

Mentors are an integral part of every veteran's court program. And, though mentors are occasionally used in other treatment court programs, their central role in the veteran's court is truly unique. They deserve our recognition and thanks.

In the Outagamie County program, we have experienced real benefits from the participation of trained volunteers who serve as mentors. The current Veteran Mentor Team has 19 mentors – all of them veterans – and we expect that number to grow.

One veteran mentor, Herb Schmoll, said his participation in the program has been rewarding. "It is a very patriotic feeling to be a part of something like this," he said. "It is a small act of giving back to the community.  When we came home from Vietnam, very few people supported us, and it is incredible to see both the courts and community support these veterans the way they are. We are taking responsibility as a society and helping them readjust to life after combat.  I think we can make a real difference with these young men and women."

Like many of our colleagues across the state, we began this project by visiting Judge Robert Russell's Veterans Treatment Court in Buffalo, NY, which opened its doors in 2008 and is credited with being the first court of its kind in the nation. Our Drug Court Team also observed courts in Rock and Brown counties to learn more about the elements of a successful program.

We came away with the firm sense that a strong and active mentorship program is critical.

Finding mentors
Judge John A. DesJardins, who started the Outagamie County Veterans Court, and Judge Gregory B. Gill, Jr., who also presides in the court, took on the challenge of identifying and training a core group of volunteer mentors. They reached out to veterans' groups and attended meetings of local veterans' organizations. They found real interest in the community and a number of volunteers came forward.

Every branch of service is represented, which is important, because there is a bond among participants and mentors from the same service background.  But, of course, within each service branch, every person is an individual – and those different backgrounds and life experiences add to the support the participants receive from the mentor volunteers.

Training mentors
Each mentor attends Mentor Orientation Training through the Outagamie County Volunteers in Offender Services (VIOS) prior to being matched with a participant.

Jennifer Evers, mentor coordinator for VIOS, explained that the duty of the mentor is to be a role model, a guide and a resource for the participant. All of the mentors can relate to the sometimes difficult experience of transition from military to civilian life, and many of the veterans from prior wartime service can relate to service members with service from recent combat deployments. 

The mentor's time commitment
The time commitment for a mentor includes making twice-weekly phone calls to his/her participant, visiting face-to-face with that person twice a month, and attending Veterans Court once a month.  Many exceed those requirements.

One participant put it this way:  "I talk to him pretty much every day, or pretty close, and it's really helped me out…"

There is a passion and deep feeling of patriotism that drives each mentor's participation.  There is also an additional personal commitment by the participant to his mentor. Taking care of a fellow service member is an important value, and not letting a buddy down is a strong motivator for the participants. That spirit of commitment is unique to the Veterans Court, and contributes to the potential success of the participant in completing the graduation requirements.

Even with the invaluable assistance of our mentors, helping veterans to adjust successfully to civilian life is a momentous task. It helps somewhat to realize that this is a battle that has been fought throughout the ages. In fact, the Veteran's Mentoring Program underscores this history by borrowing a line from Abraham Lincoln for its vision statement:  "To care for him who shall have borne the battle."

Editor's note:  Wisconsin now has 10 veterans court programs serving veterans in 26 counties. For a complete list and contact information for the individual programs, visit wicourts.gov/services/veteran/index.htm.

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