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Our Vietnam Voices: In specialized treatment court, no veteran is left behind

Lynn Bader

For better or worse, the effects of the Vietnam War are still being felt today. As part of WNED|WBFO’s “Our Vietnam Voices” series, Avery Schneider takes a look at a special program in the Western New York court system that – thanks to the influence of Vietnam veterans – helps others who served put their lives on a better path.

In downtown Buffalo, Judge Robert Russell has presided over the city’s specialized treatment courts for drugs and mental health for more than two decades. But in 2006, he saw the need to focus on another group.

“We started noticing several veterans that we had, in our regular Treatment Court,” Russell explained. “Some were not doing as well as we had expected.”

One case, in particular, stood out. A veteran of the Vietnam War who appeared in Russell’s mental health treatment court wasn’t showing signs of progress, so Russell reached out for some help. He asked his court coordinator and the county’s Director of Medicaid – both Vietnam Veterans – to speak with the man.

U.S. Marine Corps Vietnam Veteran Patrick Welch recalled, “The next time he came back into court, he walked into the court, went to parade rest, stuck his chest out, looked the judge directly in the eye, and every question was answered with, ‘Yes sir, yes sir, and I'm going to do everything I need to do to get better, sir.’"

Welch said while the swift change was a welcome surprise, what the two veterans did to effect it was simple.

“This man, since he'd come back for Vietnam, had gone into isolation, had a drinking problem, didn't associate with people, didn't want to do anything,” said Welch. “And when they talked to him, they found out really what he was searching for was some fellow Vietnam veterans.”

The man was connected to others who had served in Vietnam through the Veterans Administration, where he found more people willing to help. And with that initial success, Judge Russell realized there was more that could be done to help other veterans regain stability in their lives.

“It was very much a light bulb moment," said Russell.

Russell and his veteran associates spent the next year brainstorming the idea of a Veterans Court. When they presented it to the Buffalo VA hospital’s advisory board, Welch was one of the dozen in the room whose response was unanimous. “We all raised our hand and said, ‘How can we help?’”

Credit Lynne Bader / WNED-TV
Judge Robert Russell (left) and U.S. Marine Corps Vietnam Veteran Patrick Welch (right)

American culture and the public’s admiration for veterans today is far from what it was during the Vietnam War and the years that followed. While today’s service members are greeted with appreciation, those who returned from Vietnam were met with scorn and isolation. But it’s that shared hardship that Russell sees driving them to support each other now.

“Our Vietnam veterans are very passionate to say, ‘never again, will one generation of veterans suffer, or go through what we went through,’" said Russell. “I think it is with that passion that so many Vietnam veterans do volunteer in Veterans Treatment Court.”

“I became the first mentor in the Veterans Treatment Court in January 2008,” Welch recalled. “We opened up for business and it's been nonstop ever since.”

Mentors from all U.S. military conflicts since the 1960s volunteer in the court, but Vietnam Veterans have been seen as critical to its success. Among the challenges they face in helping those in trouble is the attitude often found within military culture.

“Part of their training is not necessarily to ask for help,” said Russell. “Part of their training is to just, 'suck it up, you'll get through it, be strong.' But we have to work to change that paradigm – it takes strength to ask for help.”

Welch pointed out what he believes is an irrefutable fact: “No one, absolutely no one, goes to war and ever returns the same person.” It’s a statement he said no one can challenge him on, and the basis for the idea that to succeed, veterans courts have to look at ways of providing treatment.

Among those ways is a collaborative approach. The court and its mentors work with community agencies to connect veterans with services, from housing and education, to job training and employment. But perhaps even more important is providing a guide and a friend – what service members today call a ‘battle buddy.’

“If they are in need, they need someone to talk to, they're at a point where they're breaking and maybe they're looking to relapse, that they can reach out to and call and I or my fellow mentors will meet with them for coffee, meet with them and take them to a baseball game, take them to a hockey game, do whatever we need to do to help them get over that feeling of hopelessness, of ‘nobody cares,’ and help them become successful people who complete their programs,” said Welch.

Since its inception, the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court has inspired the creation of 350 more like it across the country. In the last year alone, they’ve kept 15,000 veterans from incarceration and put them into treatment for mental health and substance abuse issues. According to Welch, the nationwide recidivism rate among veterans in treatment courts is just 10 percent.

And back where it all began, Judge Robert Russell maintains his message for those who may be in need and those who help them:

"Welcome home and thank you. Thank you for what you do for our country now and for your fellow veterans."

You can hear more about this epic period in American history in the landmark documentary premiere of "The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick."  The series begins Sunday, September 17 at 8 p.m. on WNED-TV.

For more stories of local Vietnam veterans, visit WNED.org to watch the Our Vietnam Voices series. There, you can share your own story and join the conversation using the hashtag #VietnamStoriesPBS.

Avery began his broadcasting career as a disc jockey for WRUB, the University at Buffalo’s student-run radio station.
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