Three men were recognized Friday for working through the steps of the diversion court designed to help veterans get their lives back on track after a run in with the law. They each expressed thanks for what the program had done for them.

Grayson County is one of five counties participating in the North Texas Regional Veterans Court Program. This jail-diversion program is a collaborative effort between the court and other local officials, such as the Grayson County Commissioners, District Attorney’s Office, Public Defender’s Office, Probation Department, Sheriff’s Office, Veterans Service Office, and the Department of Veterans Administration.

The program, which began in Grayson County in February 2016, focuses on a treatment-based alternative to incarceration for veterans in the community charged with committing crimes linked to issues such as traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress, substance abuse, or mental health issues resulting from his or her service in the U.S. Armed Forces.

Each of the three veteran participants rising past the third phase of the three-phase program last week, had successfully completed the program which is 12-to-24 months long and includes regular drug and alcohol testing, individual and group therapies, mental health services, self-help meetings, as well as support from other veterans and Veterans Court partners in the community.

John Roach, the judge who oversees the North Texas Regional Veterans Court, said he doesn’t like the term graduation for the vets who have completed the 3-phase program.

Graduation means one is done with something, he said. Individuals graduate from high school and never go back, and they graduate from boot camp and never want to go back. The program that they are completing with Veterans Court, Roach said, is just really the beginning of something they will live for the rest of their lives.

He told the story of a marine veteran who had been put in the program because he got drunk and beat his girlfriend. He went through the program with flying colors. Then after about two years, he graduated from the program. The next weekend, he got drunk and beat up his new girlfriend.

“So you want to debrief that and see what went wrong,” he said.

They did and decided it wasn’t right to say individuals, who complete the program, are graduating.

“We are starting something and moving on,” he said. “We have learned what we can and now we are going to start a new day, a new chapter of our lives.”

All three of the vets moving on Friday had at least part of their charges dropped. All three expressed thankfulness for the second chance the diversionary court program offered them.

One of the vets, who has been in the program the longest, spoke before he was given his commencement gifts.

“I have been an addict for 23 years and I am only 31-years-old,” he said.

While he had been doing drugs his whole life, this was the first year since he got out of the military that he has been able to see all four seasons of a single year outside of jail.

He thanked everyone for helping him to do that. Then he told the people just starting the program to be honest with the judge and the others there to help them.

“A year and a half ago, my opinion of that court was much different,” he said another man during his commencement speech.

He noted that it was going to extend his probation and he wasn’t excited about that. He said during that previous probation, he was just getting by, but he was also still drinking and still using.

“Once or twice I would have to take a drug test which I managed to stay clean long enough to pass,” he said.

He said just getting by like that eventually led him to get into even more trouble including seeing Child Protective Services open up a case on his family.

“My life spun out of control and I was broken every which way,” he said.

Then, Veterans Court came along.

But, his life didn’t change just because he signed onto the program.

He kept at it though and said the court gave him the resources he needed to succeed.

“For me, I had to make a decision in the beginning that I was willing to do more whether it was the therapy, groups, classes or going back for treatment, I had commit myself 100 percent,” he said noting that without the court making him do a treatment plan he would have never addressed the issues that were affecting him on a daily basis. “I needed the structure of Veterans Court to keep me on the right track whether I liked it or not.”

He added that seeing Roach on a monthly basis was also helpful.

“Knowing I had someone I had to answer to kept me in check,” he said.

“I began to actually enjoy life without drugs and alcohol,” he said but he cautioned the others in the program that such progress wouldn’t happen overnight.

“Keep your head up, make it to your appointments, use the available resources, do what is asked of you and realize that this is a great opportunity that will not only benefit your legal situation but your life in general. I can testify to that.”

“Looking forward,” he said, “I realize there will be days I will struggle with my mental health and temptations, the difference today is I am now fully equipped with coping mechanisms and confidence in my ability to stay on a righteous path. There is light at the end of this tunnel … I am not talking Bud Light, Miller Light,” he said to laughter from the crowd.

Another one of the men leaving the program said he had to learn to have the right mindset and work the program.

“I am so glad you changed gradution to commencement,” he said looking at Roach. “I think that is a key point in this program because whether your problems are addition, drinking or what have you, once you leave the program, the opportunity to relapse or go back is there.”

H said after completing the three phases, the next step is paying it forward.

“Paying it forward can be a lot of different things. It can be so much as I am going to continue to go to meetings, I am going to continue to go to therapy and somebody else is going to see that.”

Roach gave each of the men a flag that had seen better days and a challenge coin.

The flags, like the veterans who get them, were created to represent the finest country in the world, Roach said. “When it was made it was bright, it had bright white stars, and the blues and the reds and it was pristine.” Then it flew over something. And time took its toll. “The stars got a little dirty, the ends got a little tattered, the stitching got a little loose, and somebody thought that flag was ready to be destroyed,” Roach said.

But a local lady, he said, decided that they could refurbish the flags and let them fly again.

“When I heard about that story, I thought Wow isn’t that exactly what we do in Veterans Court?” Roach told those assembled for the commencement.

“We were created to be something. Everyone of us in this room has been created to be something. When we were first born we were bright and shiny, over time we, I can speak for myself, we get wrinkled. We get a little bit slower. We get whatever it is. And sometimes I think in that process, we lose our purpose. These veterans come in here and they have been a symbol for our country. They have fought for this very flag. And they were bright and shiny and somewhere along the way because of their ex[experiences, their stars got a little faded. The stitching got a little loose, got a little tattered on the ends.”

He said some of them seemed to think because they were no longer what the once were, they were done and they started to compensate with drugs or alcohol.

“And the criminal justice system might have decided, just like somebody did with this flag, that we’re done. We are just gonna put them in the penitentiary. But Veterans Court steps in and does with them what this lady did with this flag. We brightened up yours stars and tightened up your stitching a little bit. We fix those tatters just a little bit and we put you in a format that it is more presentable,” he said. They could not represent themselves better to the country they had served.

Grayson County District Attorney Brett Smith told the court participants that everyone goes through things in life that are hard but most of us like to keep those things to themselves. “But you guys stand up here and openly lay it all out and just the courage that it takes to do that is pretty impressive.”

Grayson County Commissioners Jeff Whitmire said the veterans court program, like the drug court and the new teen court, are important things to do financially because they change lives. “I am not a veteran, but I really respect the fact that you are and you have gone out and fought for our freedom and you put that time in. I want to have this opportunity for you all to come in and make the appropriate changes in your life,”

Justice of the Peace Rita Noel became emotional when addressing the three who were moving on.

“I am going to miss you guys,” she said before her voice broke and she added, “I’m so proud of you.”

Roach reminded the veterans in the room that holidays can be a very stressful time for someone who is dealing with problems with depression or substance abuse. He encouraged them to reach out for help if they start feeling that stress and pressure.

“It is a stressful time, but just stay with it and keep your eye on the prize and you will make it,” he said.