Facing a bureaucratic maze of red tape, a change of leadership at the top of the county, and unclear foes, the members of the Grayson County Commander’s Council have been left seeking answers in their ongoing quest to establish a specialized veterans court. Hoping to answer some of those questions, Todd Hill, who oversees the Collin County Veterans Court, and Melissa Stroop with U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs spent more than an hour Saturday morning sharing advice with the Council.

Facing a bureaucratic maze of red tape, a change of leadership at the top of the county, and unclear foes, the members of the Grayson County Commander’s Council have been left seeking answers in their ongoing quest to establish a specialized veterans court. Hoping to answer some of those questions, Todd Hill, who oversees the Collin County Veterans Court, and Melissa Stroop with U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs spent more than an hour Saturday morning sharing advice with the Council.


A veterans court — there are currently a dozen operational in Texas — allows combat veterans who commit a violation of the law due to post-traumatic stress disorder or other injury, to enter an intense pretrial counseling program. Those who complete the veterans court program have their records expunged, while those who drop out are ruled guilty without trial and sentenced accordingly.


"It’s been probably a little over a year since we started our veterans court initiative," said Grayson County Veterans Service Officer Jimmy Petty in his opening remarks to the Council. "We thought we’d be up and running by October, so obviously we are several months past that date. We basically don’t have anything legal in place, everything that’s in place right now is all … agreements that are not on paper. It didn’t get to that point (of binding agreements) before the breaks got applied."


Who applied those breaks and for what reason is a clear point of consternation for the veterans group. Without a first-hand seat at the decision-making table, the vets essentially are operating in the blind, relying on second-hand reports from elected officials who have pledged support for their efforts.


"We had a formal presentation at Commissioners Court a little over a year ago, and (County Judge Drue Bynum) formally took the baton that he would support our effort and begin moving forward," explained Petty. "He’s been doing most of the legal negotiations in the background to get leaders in the county lined up to support this initiative. (But he) has decided he’s not going to run for office again. So here in a few months, we’re going to lose one of our best advocates for pushing this thing through."


It was that uncertain future that led the group to invite Hill and Stroop on Saturday, hoping to learn from experience which strings needed pulled and what hurdles might stand in their way. Stroop said community education is often the first obstacle that veterans groups face when looking to establish a specialized court.


"One thing that we noticed with law enforcement is when they first hear about it, if they’re not educated, they’re like, ‘Oh this is a get-out-of-jail-free card.’ It is not," said Stroop. "This is very labor-intensive; it’s very supervised; they only get one chance to go through veterans court. That education is essential to get them to understand we’re not just saying, ‘Oh, you’re a veteran? You can do whatever you want.’"


Hill, too, said the public often misunderstands the goal of the court.


"They hear about these specialty programs, and immediately they think, ‘Oh, well, they’re being coddled, or this is the easy way out for them.’ The opposite is true. This is a very time intensive program, it requires a lot of their effort, and it is much more difficult than regular probation.


"So you generally have people (enrolled in the program) that truly want help and want to change their life. This is not a cakewalk for these guys; they’re doing this because they desperately want it. It’s the harder road to go, but it’s the bigger pay off."


Whether that pay off will ever be available to combat vets among Grayson County’s 12,115 veterans is still very much up in the air. The Council and its backers have secured a spot in the court of District Judge Brian Gary to host the program, but a successor who will continue Bynum’s advocacy is a must, said Hill. Also, participation from a District Attorney’s Office that has heretofore appeared skittish, according to the Council, would be a prerequisite to the establishment of a veterans court.


"(The program) requires (accused vets) to go before the judge, stand there and say, ‘I am guilty of this offense and I plead guilty.’ And then the judge stops everything right there and doesn’t sentence them," said Hill. "But it does require the DA’s signature of approval."


Grayson County District Attorney Joe Brown declined comment through his assistant, citing a heavy caseload. Assistant DA Kerye Ashmore also said he would not comment, directing questions to Bynum who, himself, said he could not comment.


In the meantime, the Commanders Council is left with little recourse beyond questioning each of the county judge candidates regarding their stance on the issue — the group plans to represent itself at Tuesday’s debate.


"We’ve had police officers in the … courts; we’ve had airline pilots. It’s amazing to see how PTSD or other known health issues affect everybody," said Stroop, herself a veteran. "A lot of people won’t get help until they’re motivated by a legal reason, and that’s unfortunate. A lot of the machismo and all that stuff that the Army or the military taught us, it’s ingrained. And it’s hard for people to say ‘I need help’ until something like this happens."