WYOMING, Mich. (WOOD) — The Kent County Veterans Treatment Court celebrated a major milestone Friday.
For the first time, the program held a multi-generational graduation.
For the two graduates — Dennis Johnson and another who asked that 24 Hour News 8 not to identify him — their age and when they served are separated by decades.
But their stories are incredibly similar.
“I came home and I didn’t realize what I had pent up inside me,” Johnson, a Vietnam veteran, said.
The other veteran served in Iraq in the early 2000s, but shared a similar story.
“The circumstances that got me here, unfortunately, are something that most vets deal with,” he said. “Unfortunately, it got the better of me.”
Both Johnson and the other graduate served in the U.S. Marine Corps and were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after returning home from combat. They both turned to the bottle to cope.
It was alcohol use landed them in trouble — and eventually brought them to the veterans’ program in Wyoming District Court.
Now, they’re sharing something yet again — as the program’s newest graduates.
Veterans court, which was new to Kent County about two years ago, was spearheaded by district court Judge Pablo Cortes and is supported by Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker. Before the graduation, Cortes welcomed a handful of veterans who were just joining the program.
“You will get out of this what you put in,” Cortes told one of the veterans Friday.
The veterans court works with those who have served the country but find themselves facing charges for misdemeanors or low-level felonies back home.
Participants are required to undergo counseling and drug testing, among others things, for 18 to 24 months. All the while, they share their ups and downs with the judge and other participants, and if they complete the intensive probation, the court may reduce or even dismiss the charges against them.
It’s clear the program is working. Johnson was nearly moved to tears while addressing friends, family and other veterans who came out to support him Friday.
“We start to establish a rapport, and we’re like a family,” Judge Cortes said. “This is probably the most rewarding thing I do.”
For the veterans themselves, the program is even more than a success story.
“I think it’s life or death. I’m not sure I’d even be around if it wasn’t for this,” Johnson said.
“This court – like I said – saved my life,” the other graduating veteran said.
Funding is a concern for those who advocate for the program. The veterans court relies in part on donations to expand and sustain itself. At Friday’s graduation, they received a big one.
The United Veterans Council of Kent County donated more than $10,000 to the Friends of the Kent County Veterans Court, a non-profit that supports the program. The court itself isn’t allowed to accept donations to avoid ethical conflicts.
Those wishing to donate should send their donation to The Friends of Kent County Veterans Treatment Court (FKCVTC), c/o Dan Ophoff at P.O. Box 3500, Grand Rapids, MI 49501.