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Shelby County Veterans Treatment Court, a pilot in Alabama, celebrates first graduation
Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy S. Moore talks with Shelby County Circuit Judge Bill Bostick, who presides over the Shelby County Veterans Treatment Court, at the conclusion of the program's first graduation ceremony in Columbiana on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013. (Martin J. Reed / mreed@al.com)

COLUMBIANA, Alabama -- Shelby County Circuit Judge Bill Bostick asked the five men, all veterans, to line up in front of the podium in the historic 1854 Courthouse in Columbiana.

Before presenting each of them a specially minted coin representing their achievements in the Shelby County Veterans Treatment Court and as the program's first graduating class, Bostick told each of them they would never stand in front of a judge again.

"I am confident of that," he told the men, who together represented the Vietnam War through post-9/11 era of military service.

Joined by Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy S. Moore, Bostick led this afternoon's first-ever graduation ceremony for the specialized pilot program in the state that works to provide certain veterans who run afoul of the law with the help they need to address substance abuse issues.

The program works in conjunction with the Veterans Administration and participants receive assistance through the government organization while fulfilling substance abuse treatment programs, frequent drug testing, court appearances that happen every Thursday and other obligations.

While Shelby County's court program is not the first for veterans in Alabama, with ones operating in Birmingham and Montgomery, Bostick said the local program that started a year ago has been a "tremendous success" and the idea to develop them throughout the state is a "laudable goal."

Bostick requested the names of the graduates withheld from publication. On condition of anonymity, two of the graduates agreed to speak about their time in the program.

Both men said they graduated from the program after getting in trouble and becoming involved in other avenues in the court system. Their participation in the Veterans Treatment Court started when the program began a year ago.

"For me, it was the black and white. It was if you do wrong, you're doing time," one veteran said.

"In this one, you mess up once ... you go straight to jail," the other added.

They expressed the sense of teamwork felt among the former soldiers in the program and complimented Bostick for not acting as a judge critical of their behavior, but instead as someone looking to help them overcome their substance abuse issues.

"You could tell from the get go they just wanted to get you help," one graduate said, appreciative of the Veterans Administration's involvement in the program. "They get you in touch with the right people at the VA."

For soldiers, asking for help is not a common occurrence, they said. "Veterans are very individualized. We don't want the help," one graduate said.

"It's got a plan in place to set you up to succeed and give you the tools," another said. "The hardest thing for any of us to do is ask for help."

Thanks to the roughly 15 team members in the program who include VA representatives, prosecution and defense attorneys, Shelby County Community Corrections managers, court officials and others, the participants receive support to stay on their treatment path.

Pointing to discussions about creating the veterans court two years ago through a task force's recommendation, Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner W. Clyde Marsh attributed the program's success so far to the participants themselves.

"You ... made it the success and brought us here today," Marsh said. "It's a great program and it's for you, the veterans."

Moore told the graduates and the 60 or so people in the audience that he has witnessed the harmful effects of drugs since the mid-'60s, before he served in the Vietnam War and later as a prosecutor, a judge and a father.

"Everybody has problems. Everybody has certain addictions you have to overcome in this life," he said, emphasizing the importance of placing trust in God to overcome Satan's influence.

"You will, I promise, be attacked," Moore said. "If you don't rely on God, you can't whip the devil."

Bostick noted the efforts of former Shelby County judge J. Michael Joiner, who started the local Drug Court program 10 years ago, and later the creation of a local mental health court as precursors to the veterans program. "They had ended the revolving cycle of use and criminal behavior," Bostick said of results seen in Drug Court.

He is expecting the same level of success from the graduates of the Veterans Treatment Court, whose criminal charges he dismissed at the ceremony's conclusion. Handing each of them their unique coin, the judge gave a final message: "It is just a piece of metal, but I hope it will remind you of what you accomplished this year."

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