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Veterans finish program to avoid Butler County jail

| Friday, Oct. 11, 2013, 1:51 p.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Todd M. McCormick is congratulated during graduation for the Butler County's Veterans Treatment Court on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013. McCormick and two others were in the first graduation class for vets where sobriety, recovery and stability are promoted. Butler County is home to about 18,000 veterans.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Jeffrey A. Cunningham is greeted by fellow servicemen during graduation for the Butler County Veterans Court on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013. McCormick and two others were in the first graduation class for vets where sobriety, recovery, and stability are promoted. Butler County is home to about 18,000 veterans.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
James G. Meacham (center) is introduced as Jeffrey A. Cunningham (left) and Todd M. McCormick make up the first graduation class for the Butler County Veterans Court on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013. The first graduation class for vets promotes sobriety, recovery, and stability. Butler County is home to about 18,000 veterans.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Jeffrey A. Cunningham recounts his successes during graduation for the Butler County Veterans Court on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013. McCormick and two others were in the first graduation class for vets where sobriety, recovery, and stability are promoted. Butler County is home to about 18,000 veterans.

One year ago, Todd McCormick found himself in the Butler County Prison over two arrests for drunken driving.

“I made some bad decisions. I dealt with my problems and pain with alcohol. I was in a constant state of pain,” McCormick said.

On Thursday, the first anniversary of his sobriety, McCormick, who served twice in Iraq with the Marines, reached another milestone.

He became one of the first three graduates of Butler County's Veterans Treatment Court, established one year ago to help veterans convicted of nonviolent offenses avoid jail time.

About 200 people attended the sometimes-emotional graduation ceremony, held in the Butler County Courthouse.

The arrests that bring veterans before the special court are almost always related to alcohol or drug problems, said Common Pleas Judge Tim McCune, who presides in veterans court.

Many have turned to drinking and drugs because of traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder, said Brad Schaffer, VA Butler Healthcare's Veterans Justice Outreach coordinator.

“I did not know where else to go. I was in jail. My family and friends were fed up with me,” said McCormick, 28, of Mars, a car mechanic.

There are 17 counties with veterans treatment courts, according to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. They include Allegheny, Beaver, Fayette and Washington counties.

“The number of veterans courts has been growing. It's a testament to courts wanting to assist veterans who are charged with nonviolent offenses. It reduces cost of incarceration, provides benefit to the community and provides treatment to the individual,” said Art Heinz, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

The four-phase, yearlong program puts participants through an intense combination of drug and alcohol treatment. They work with a mentor. In the early phases, they must make weekly appearances in court with VA Butler Healthcare staff and enroll in programs designed to get them housing, work or an education.

“It was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do, worse than basic training was when I went into the Marines,” McCormick said.

Jeffrey Cunningham entered the program after being arrested for theft. He'd been homeless for three years and drank heavily.

“I severed all ties with a society I did not think cared for me,” Cunningham, a Navy veteran, told the graduation audience.

Cunningham said he had little confidence at first that he could complete the program.

“It would have been so much easier to stay in jail and do nothing,” said Cunningham, 47, of Butler.

James Meacham, 54, of Butler, a Navy veteran, said he was proud to participate in a program that “shows me what I can accomplish. This program has taught me that I do not need to be alone.”

He was arrested last year for public drunkenness and attempted theft from a motor vehicle.

Participants completing the program can have charges dropped, reduced or altered, McCune said.

“Every day these guys are not sitting in jail or committing crimes, it saves all kinds of money. And it's better for them and the community,” McCune said.

Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or rwills@tribweb.com.

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