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Messenger Post Article: George Hamlin supports Veterans' Court

June 26, 2014
New court’s goal: Help struggling veterans

By John Addyman For Messenger Post
Posted Jun. 15, 2014 @ 2:01 am

CANANDAIGUA – The county’s judicial system on Friday marked the grand opening of its Veterans’ Treatment Court, where Judge Stephen Aronson and a special support team will adjudicate veterans who have run afoul of the law and need help much more than they need time in jail.

The effort, a year in the making and a brainchild of Aronson’s, is modeled after a successful veterans’ court in Monroe County, and it has drawn statewide attention. State Senators Ted O’Brien D-Irondequoit, and Mike Nozzolio R-Fayette, were there, as was Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb (R-Canandaigua, and officials from the 20-some county, state and federal agencies that could ultimately be involved in this special court.

“This will be called a ‘Treatment Court’ because our vets are in some way a casualty of war,” said Farmington Supervisor Ted Fafinski. “After Korea, it was called ‘shell shock’; after Vietnam, someone termed it ‘post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).’”

Fafinski said that our “country has changed, our defense posture. Our reserve forces have become more evident. Many of these kids went into the National Guard for the education benefits. Then they got activated. They were taken out of Walmart and Burger King and in 30 days, were driving a truck in a convoy with bombs going off and people shooting at them. This can’t be good.”

Fafinski said the court is a “celebration of ‘The Promise’ – and those of you who are veterans, you know what I’m talking about.”

That thought was echoed by Judge Craig Doran, chief administrative judge of the state Seventh Judicial District.

“We are here to speak loud and clear,” said Doran. “How we treat our veterans speaks to our value as a nation. At a time when how vets are being cared for across the country is a matter of concern, Ontario County is celebrating again how well we take care of vets.”

He said when Aronson approached him about establishing a veterans’ court, he told him, “This is going to be a heavy lift.”

Doran said he wanted to do it in Ontario County, and I wanted Aronson to do it, saying, “he has such compassion for the people who appear before him. He is an outstanding partner in doing justice.”

Aronson said he had watched how the Ontario drug court “is rebuilding people’s lives.”

He heard complaints from sheriffs about the jails warehousing mental health patients and he started the mental health court. “We can supervise and monitor these people. We get feedback from their families. We improve the quality of life for our constituents in Ontario County.”

Now it was time to do something for veterans, they said.

“If a soldier comes back from Iraq or Afghanistan with PTSD or traumatic brain injury and runs into problems, we’re not just going to throw that person in jail for 30 days,” said Aronson. “Not this city. Not this county. Not this district. Not on our watch.”

He said that working with the VA, “we will help veterans reunite with their families, become productive members of society again. We’ll strike out at the suicide rate for veterans – that’s why we started veterans’ treatment court. Every vet who comes back from Iraq or Afghanistan or anywhere – we have your back in this court.”

George Hamlin, chairman of the Canandaigua National Bank and an Air Force veteran of 100 missions over Vietnam, is a supporter of the Vet Life Community, whose spring newsletter contains a quote from Senior Vet Life Coach Vic Montgomery: “Veterans’ emotional, expressive wounds of war don’t stop at the base’s main gate. For many, the war rages on in the warriors’ minds and shows up in their perplexing behaviors, emotional upheaval and broken relationships…sometimes for decades.”

Hamlin referred to the “walking wounded, who are troubled but don’t know why.” He noted that successful use of combat veterans as Vet Life coaches. “Veterans mentoring veterans: it’s like a buddy system working far beyond the war zone,” he said.

And Hamlin was speaking from experience. Two years after his tour of duty, he knew something was wrong but couldn’t identify it. His wife was going through her own hell, dealing with an echoed version of his stress.

“She would wake up screaming in the middle of the night,” he said.

The veterans’ treatment court “is an idea whose time has come,” Hamlin said. “It has touched me personally.”

Nozzolio said what Ontario County was about to begin would be closely watched across the state. “This is about justice,” he said. “about service justice. About understanding the behavior of those subjected to the horrors of war.”

Kolb, with two sons in the Marines and other veterans in two generations of his family, said that Ontario County was blessed to have the court staffed with two visionaries – Aronson and Doran. “Thank goodness for people like Judge Aronson and the others.”

O’Brien had been on the phone with a constituent the prior evening, a man whose veteran son has had trouble reentering work life smoothly.

“This court will recognize the special needs of people who have sacrificed and have some special challenges to face,” he said.

Public Defender Leanne Lapp said she expects to take referrals to the Ontario County Veterans’ Treatment Court within a month. Betsy Lee, the resource coordinator, thinks it’s a matter of a week or so.

“We’re aware of a vet who is in the wings, waiting for something like this,” she said.

Sheriff Phil Povero said the vets’ court “allows us in the criminal justice system and law enforcement and corrections to have an opportunity to identify vets that have been charged with a crime but deserve a different approach to resolve their situation in a way that identifies the issues of the serviceman and the community.”

Ontario County District Attorney Mike Tantillo agreed.

“If we can provide services to people who need them and keep them out of the criminal justice system, that’s good for everyone. We can put people on the right track and stabilize their families.”