Veterans treatment court now underway in southeastern Minnesota

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A veteran’s treatment court is now underway in southeastern Minnesota. It started as a pilot program in March 2019 and became permanent in the fall.

There are now 16 active participants.

“It’s helped me deal with things that, frankly, it would've been pretty tough had it been a year ago,” said Justin Slavin.

Slavin planned to have a career in the military, joining the Marine Corps right out of high school in 1997. In 2000, he fell 45 feet during a rock climbing training course and suffered a traumatic brain injury.

It forced Slavin to leave the Marines eight months later.

“I basically kept falling in a way,” he said. “You're looking for something and it's just not there anymore.”

Slavin began having trouble with the law and struggled with addiction. He eventually got help from the VA.

“I ended up seeing a brain doctor, they helped me with my addiction and we went from there,” he said. “Didn’t fully get a fix, if that's what you want to call it. I still made some bad choices here and there but the VA was there to help.”

Slavin told us he was still self-medicating when he got a DUI last spring.

“When this happened, vets court presented itself to me and I took it on wholeheartedly,” he said. “My feet were put to the fire in a way.”

“Rather than just pay the fine and move on, or serve your time and move on, it was you have to make some honest choices and look at yourself and change this,” said Slavin. “How do I change this? Who do I have to see? What do I have to do? And they help you.”

A judge-led team works to connect veterans to the help they need, whether its mandated counseling, addiction treatment or breaking down barriers to services at the VA.

“You’re not only answering to the judge, you're not only answering to law enforcement or whatnot but you're answering to your peers and that's huge,” said Slavin.

It's a 12 to 18-month program.

Veterans currently in the program have been arrested for a range of offenses, including drug cases and DUIs.

“They’re self-medicating, they’re turning to drugs and alcohol to deal with PTSD, anxiety, depression that are often found in someone returning from combat,” said Judge Ross Leuning.

They're also helping veterans arrested for assault.

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“They’re not unusual for someone who’s come back from an environment where violence is a tool and when they’re struggling with their mental health or addiction, they often turn to sometimes their training, military training that they got,” he said.

Judge Leuning served in the Army National Guard and later the Navy. He helped create the Third District Veterans Court, which reaches 11 counties.

The court is divided into two parts. The western portion is based in Steele County, while the eastern portion is centered in Fillmore County.

According to Leuning, veterans can be reluctant to ask for help.

“Usually and often the first time it is addressed is in a court setting,” he said. “If we can get help for these people early, before it mushrooms into a more serious behavior, we're helping them, we're helping their families, we're helping the communities.”

He pointed to the statistic from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that nearly 20 veterans die by suicide every day.

“And 70 percent of those folks had zero contact with the VA,” he said. “If we can get those people, that seven out of 10 to the VA before they commit suicide, we're going to save lives. Hopefully, we save all seven out of those 10.”

The Third District Veterans Court joins several others statewide.

“The smaller counties, I have to say, really are underserved,” said Judge Leuning. “Shouldn’t every veteran have that? That’s our goal in the Third District to make sure every county is fully served.”

For Slavin, it’s created a network of support.

“Everyone there is trying to understand what you've been through,” he said. “Instead of trying to just wander through what's going on in my life, now I actually have a set group of people and a set network of support I can lean on if I need it.”

It's even more important for him now. KSTP spoke to Slavin as he prepared for brain surgery to remove a tumor.

“I wouldn't have been able to reach out and build the support structure I have to go after this,” he said. “And have the confidence to go after it.”

Slavin said it’s possible he never would’ve even been checked out in the first place.

“It saved my life,” he said.

The first round of graduations start in April 2020. Slavin told us after he finishes the program, he hopes to give back as a mentor.

“If I could help one vet coming out who's getting into trouble, stay out of that path and not have to spin their wheels for as long as I did – I want to do that,” he said.