Vietnam veteran John Vallone did not know what to expect when he stood before Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Nanci Grant for the first time. Instead of a rebuke, Vallone, charged with brandishing a gun during an altercation in a local gas station, received a heartfelt “Welcome home” from the judge, who was overcome with emotion as she thanked him for his service and for putting himself in harm’s way for the sake of his country.
Vallone was part of a group of former soldiers who gather monthly in Grant’s courtroom as part of a treatment program designed for combat veterans charged with non-violent felonies that include illegal drug use, assault and other
offenses. According to Grant, most of the participants suffer from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) or mental health issues caused or exacerbated by their combat experiences.
The Oakland County Combat Veterans Treatment Court, the only one of its kind in Michigan, is open to veterans who have participated in combat and are currently serving in the military or honorably discharged. Additionally, the felonies they were charged with must be a direct result of their service, such as drug use or other behaviors caused by PTSD or similar conditions caused by their service.
On this day, the courtroom is filled with those currently in the program as well as former participants, who come for the moral support and the monthly yoga sessions that take place in a building across the street from the courthouse. While they wait for the judge to arrive, the veterans express their admiration for the program and the judge who presides over it.
“She’s wonderful, very nice,” said one of the veterans, adding that Grant is a stickler when it comes to complying with the requirements of the treatment court. “She’s got a program, and you’ve got to stick with that program 100 percent.”
For many of the veterans, treatment for alcohol and substance abuse is a major part of the program. There are five phases, and participants can advance to the next phase only when they have met all the requirements of the previous phase, which often include regular drug testing, counseling and community service.
Also present in the courtroom is Michigan Department of Corrections probation liaison Denise Reeves-Cook, who has her own docket and also works in conjunction with the veterans court.
A Personal Touch
Once Grant is seated behind the bench, the veterans stand before her, one by one, to report their progress and discuss any difficulties that have arisen since the last session.
“You’re so not the same person I saw four month ago,” she says, beaming with parental-like pride at one of the veterans.
She talks to each as if speaking to a friend, asking about jobs, housing, medications, their spouses’ health and the importance of attending relapse prevention groups.
Todd Goff has brought his wife along, and Grant confirms with her that things are going well at home since Goff started the program.
“I’ve only met him twice, but I’m already a fan,” Grant says. “We’re on a positive move, and we’ll keep it that way. If there are bumps, we know how to deal with them. You’re being honest with us, and that’s the most important thing.”
Before Goff returns to his seat, Grant commends him for participating in the monthly yoga classes.
“I needed calming,” he smiles.
When Grant learns one participant’s wife has been ill, she expresses concern.
“Stressors like that can be a red flag,” she says, urging the veterans to utilize the program mentors, a group comprised of veterans and former court participants, with whom they can speak freely and confidentially.
“I could never understand the experiences that you and your colleagues have gone through,” Grant said.
One mentor is Clyde Willis of Waterford, a Vietnam veteran who was one of the treatment court’s first graduates. According to Grant, Willis is “the most awesome human being,” continually helping others as a mentor and through his involvement with other veterans programs such as Operation Care Package.
“I enjoyed the program,” said Willis, who came into the treatment court after being convicted of assault. “They asked me to help and I was glad to do it. We really try and help the guys out.”
Seeing A Need
Grant initiated the veteran’s court program in 2013, after then-probation officer Marseille Allen told her a certain group of probationers, mostly veterans, were having trouble complying with their probation requirements. After some research, Grant learned many of these veterans were struggling with issues, such as finding housing, accessing VA benefits or dealing with PTSD and other mental health problems because of their service.
Grant, a graduate of Wayne State University Law School who is also the chief judge of Oakland County Circuit Court, began meeting informally with veterans in her chambers to help them navigate the system. Realizing that an official structure was needed, the Veterans Treatment Court was launched.
According to Grant, the Oakland County program is one of two programs in the country (the other is in California) exclusively for veterans whose military experience led directly to the felonies they are facing. For many, this is their first involvement with the criminal justice system.
So far, 11 men have participated. Women are welcome, but none have yet taken part.
Grant, who grew up in a Conservative Jewish household and “married Reform,” says her desire to help those in need was inspired by her parents; her mother, Lisa, whom she calls her “personal hero,” and her father, retired Oakland County Judge Barry Grant, whom she considers “the best judge this county ever had.” As a probate/juvenile judge, her father set an example of advocating for those unable to stand up for themselves.
“I learned from him about caring for people,” Grant said. “The way I was brought up, the definition of maturity was giving back to others and the community.”
She manifested these beliefs as a practicing attorney in 1990, when she developed a series of free programs called “Removing the Mysteries of the Probate Court,” designed to help Oakland County residents with estate planning and probate issues.
Earlier this fall, Grant was recognized by the State Bar of Michigan, earning the organization’s Champion of Justice Award for her ongoing work with the Veterans Treatment Court.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, approximately 11-20 percent of individuals who have served in combat are affected by PTSD, with the number of Vietnam veterans estimated at 30 percent, compared to about 7-8 percent of people in the general population. PTSD is often accompanied by problems that include drug and alcohol abuse, acute stress disorder, nightmares and other sleep issues, and increased anger as a response to stress or real or perceived threats.
Vallone, who suffers from agoraphobia (fear of leaving the house) in addition to PTSD, told the court he did not understand why he was arrested for taking out his gun when he felt threatened by an individual at a local gas station.
“I’m a little bewildered,” he told the judge. “I’ve carried a weapon for 50 years and I’ve never had to take it out. I never felt I was in jeopardy [before]. I was told [the gun] was to defend myself, so I don’t understand.”
Grant assured Vallone she would look into his case and get him some answers. She also promised to find him an alternative to the medical marijuana he had been using to treat his PTSD. Many veterans, she explained, have previously been given drugs that are not in the treatment program or are not recommended for PTSD.
“No Ambien with PTSD,” she said emphatically, explaining that the prescription sedative, commonly prescribed for those with trauma-related sleep issues, can intensify the combat-related stress symptoms and can also lead to addiction.
As each veteran takes his turn before Grant, it is clear her role goes far beyond administering a judicial program; she is also a caring and nurturing advocate who sees the veterans as individuals rather than case numbers.
“They don’t get special privileges,” Grant said, “but they do get special attention.”
Ronelle Grier – Contributing Writer