A fishbowl holding a few gift cards stood to the left of the judge’s bench.
On a railing in front of chairs where a jury normally sat, Johnson County’s new Veterans Treatment Court had lined up modest prizes for those who had stuck to the regimen for the past two weeks: Donated T-shirts. Soap products, toothpaste. Plastic water bottles.
Doug Davis eyed the black ball cap.
“MARINES,” the stitching said. “The Few. The Proud.”
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Everyone in the courtroom knew that Doug Davis — a frank but fidgety combat veteran and alcoholic — wanted to leave with that hat.
“If someone else grabs it, could we get a backup cap for Mr. Davis?” Judge Timothy McCarthy asked his treatment court team.
For two months Davis, 31, had been unable to claim the cap. And McCarthy, having pushed to create the first court of its kind in Kansas, worried that Davis might be its first reject.
Like drug courts, veterans treatment courts provide an alternative to jail for some veterans whose substance abuse, injuries, depression or stress related to military service probably contributed to their scrapes with police.
Unlike Davis, four other veterans who made up the inaugural group of treatment court participants had advanced to the next phase.
But Davis couldn’t because he hadn’t quit drinking. His urine tests time and again were “dirty.” For a moment he considered giving up treatment court and serving a 16-month sentence for marijuana possession.
“The team,” to use McCarthy’s term, hoped that the steely support and Job-like patience of Davis’ fiancee, Traci Hernandez, might bring the ailing veteran around. She’s at every court appearance.
From the bench McCarthy could recognize by just looking that the wiry man before him had the worst case of post-traumatic stress disorder of anyone in the program. Davis would shift his feet, stammer and rub tattoos on his arms.
On this March afternoon, however, Doug Davis was turning a corner.
He arrived beaming, despite the couple’s two-hour grind of bus transfers to get from their Independence home to the Olathe courthouse.
His jokes and high-fives drew smiles from the prosecutors and volunteer mentors supporting the veterans. That black Marines cap was soon to belong to Davis because the urine analyses showed him to have been sober for two weeks.
“Like a kid at Christmas,” said Michele Parsons, a treatment court team member who works at the VA Medical Center in Kansas City.
The judge invited Davis up to the jury rail to collect his “swag.” And when he bolted past the fishbowl and other prizes to grab the hat, two dozen people in the courtroom stood to applaud.
Even McCarthy, from the bench.
Last week at home, Davis and Hernandez — we’ll switch here to Doug and Traci — reflected on a long, exhausting climb that continues for both.
That Doug today is 10 weeks sober doesn’t mean Veterans Treatment Court has fixed him. He will be involved another year or more in an intense protocol that many veterans turn down because they view incarceration as easier.
Doug at least is marching in a new direction, all around him can tell. He and Traci credit that to the compassion of Judge McCarthy, to the veterans groups that reached out to the couple in court, even to the brutal therapy sessions when Doug dissolves in tears recalling a certain day on his first tour of Iraq.
He was a machine gunner in a turret atop a Humvee.
(In what his VA therapists call “prolonged exposure” sessions, Doug will sit with a psychiatrist once a week, close his eyes for 45 minutes and relive a horror with which he needs to come to terms. What he says aloud is recorded, and the treatment requires that he listen to the audio every night. “Very, very intense,” said Parsons, but research shows it’s effective in helping PTSD patients live with their memories.)
Credit for Doug’s progress also goes to Traci, many say, and Doug agrees. “I wouldn’t even be here without her,” he said. “I’d be in prison.”
Traci, nearby, said, “You got that right,” while tapping a laptop to arrange student financial aid for Doug. He’ll attend Park University this summer to pursue a business degree.
“It’s been rough,” she said of their relationship, which dates to sixth grade. “Real rough.”
Doug assured her: “I’m done with all that. There’s no looking back now.”
And this time Traci believes.
Treat, not punish
More than 260 such programs have sprouted since 2008 in all but a dozen states around the nation, beginning in Buffalo, N.Y.
The objective is to separate lesser offenders from the criminal pack and try to treat, not punish.
“DUI. Drugs. Weapons charges. Domestic violence. Those are the offenses that will come up over and over,” McCarthy said, based on his discussions with other treatment court judges.
The Johnson County court presently serves 14 veterans, almost all from the post- 9/11 wars. McCarthy expects 25 to be in treatment by year’s end.
Participants who attend required court hearings, pass the drug screenings and check in with probation officers and VA therapists can graduate from the program in a year to 18 months. If they also stay out of trouble. The criminal charges that brought the veterans into the court typically will disappear from their records.
Kansas was slow to embrace the idea.
“Hug-a-thug,” some law enforcers cautioned McCarthy about how the public might view his efforts.
The nonprofit advocacy group Justice for Vets, which promotes treatment courts, has heard it from the start.
“Why should some criminals be treated differently just because they served in the military?” said Justice for Vets spokesman Chris Deutsch. “Because we know that between 80 and 85 percent of veterans who land in the justice system have been dealing with substance and mental-health issues” often stemming from PTSD.
“Punishment simply does not work when these conditions exist,” Deutsch said. “It’s far more effective to identify, assess and treat the underlying causes of the behavior.”
Since the treatment courts are relatively new, spring up at different times and vary in the kinds of criminals they accept, overall recidivism rates for those who graduate are difficult to gauge. Some judges say 90 percent who complete the program have never been arrested again.
Not all cases end well.
In Salt Lake City, Army veteran and treatment court participant Johnathon Reeves shot to death his fiancee and 2-year-old son before taking his own life. The city’s veterans court had had its first hearing just six months earlier. Proponents have kept the program going.
The Reeves tragedy occurred last June.
The same month, Lenexa police responded to complaints at a hotel about a drunken man acting up and passing out. His legs were stretching from the open door of his room.
It was Doug Davis.
Authorities arrived the next night, too. And as they brought Doug back into the room, one found half a joint on a dresser.
Doug was 16 when he started drinking. That’s also the age he charted his first DUI.
Through his adult life, “my mom probably saw me sober maybe just 30 days total,” he said.
Four years were spent as a Marine. He signed up on his 18th birthday, a high school graduate out of Pomona, Kan. Doug was proud to complete boot camp at the same San Diego, Calif., facility where his grandfather George Shuster had become a Marine.
“I stood on those same footprints out there,” Doug said. “Being a Marine was the greatest thing he ever did, and it made him the man he was.”
Doug served two tours in Iraq, where from his gunner’s turret he saw firefights stretch for three days.
That is all he’ll say. He and Traci agreed to be profiled in this story on grounds he not talk about Iraq.
After Doug’s honorable discharge in 2007, he returned to his home state and joined a roofing crew. He and three other workers would guzzle beers most every night — Doug could go through a 12-pack. When he got drunk enough the others would ask what he saw in Iraq, and only then would Doug talk.
In 2012 Doug fielded a Facebook friend request from Traci, with two sons from a broken marriage. Doug was Traci’s first crush when they attended grade school together in the Basehor-Linwood district.
Within four months of their courtship, the couple acquired a town home.
“He didn’t tell me he was a raging alcoholic when we moved in together,” Traci said.
Drinking was behind every criminal offense Doug committed, be it trespassing, marijuana possession or destruction of property.
Like many combat veterans, he avoided contact with veterans organizations. “I’d seen terrible stuff over there and figured it was behind me, I was going to forget it and move on,” he said.
But he couldn’t forget what he saw, despite all the drinking he did to try.
He and Traci were homeless and staying with friends when an argument drove Doug to check into that hotel room in June.
This would lead to his second marijuana possession charge. A sister posted bond, but Doug was arrested again for breaking the glass on the door of an Ottawa liquor store.
His mother, Pamela Joy Reynolds, bonded him out that time.
It was one of her final acts of charity accorded Doug. Reynolds died suddenly last August at age 59.
Doug spiraled further. “I just said ‘whatever,’ ” when he dodged a court appearance and moved to Independence.
Bounty hunters tracked him down there.
Doug was back in jail when word arrived in October that grandfather George, the proud Marine, was dead.
There are moments in Veterans Treatment Court when Judge McCarthy’s eyes well up a bit.
Like when participant Steven Leonard read a poem he wrote called “Sorry.”
“Understand, Judge, not all poems rhyme,” Leonard said before reading.
“Sorry” was an apology to his mother — typos, spelling errors and all:
Dear Mom as I sit here writing to you with a shakey hand.
I sit here in this foxhole on this battlefield knowing that I might not make it home.
So I would like for you to know this mom I am sorry …
Sorry for misbehaving as a kid. Sorry for not hugging her enough. Sorry most of all for not saying he loved her.
McCarthy welled up again when another veteran handed him a dog tag stamped by the Wounded Warrior Project. Though not a veteran himself, the judge has carried the memento in his pocket ever since.
A third time McCarthy felt his emotions stirring came May 4, when Doug Davis stepped to the lectern to give a status report.
“Today,” Doug declared, “I’m at 60 solid days of being sober.
“I just want to thank you, Judge, and the veterans court. Not only for my sobriety … but this has helped me make the changes I’ve always had to make in my life.”
Doug relayed that he was meeting now with other combat veterans every Monday at the VA. Through those connections a tree-trimming job came along, providing enough money for him to pay off all of his court fines and restitution costs.
He and Traci also had saved $3,200 to buy a minivan, eliminating those bus transfers they needed to get to treatment court, drug screening and therapy.
It didn’t occur to Doug to tell McCarthy about the day he stopped drinking. It was March 4. Doug was back in Pomona visiting Grandma Caroleanna, widow of George Shuster.
He visited the cemetery where his mother and Grandpa George were buried beside each other. Doug saw their headstones for the first time. And he broke down, vowing to make them proud.
Next day he and Traci planted daisy seeds outside their home to mark the occasion of their new way of living.
Last week they gathered at a Pizza Ranch with several new friends, a group of veterans supporters called Team Fidelis. The group’s founder, Marine veteran Daniel Brazzell, rose from the table to salute the sobriety of Doug and another veteran in his sixth month of participating in treatment court on the Missouri side.
More than 100 local members strong, Team Fidelis came into being two years ago to raise awareness about U.S. veteran suicides. Brazzell and other members — veterans and non-veterans — attend treatment court sessions to offer whatever help they can to participants such as Doug.
Could you use a bicycle? Doug said absolutely, and Team Fidelis arranged the purchase of two used bikes for Doug and Traci. The couple have since joined dozens of other Team Fidelis members in fundraising runs and biking events.
Doug was so impressed by the organization he tattooed Team Fidelis’ logo on his abdomen.
“Oh, man, they’ve done so much for me,” he said. “So much. Just the camaraderie …”
Doug acknowledges that his journey is far from over.
But for now, he knows that Judge McCarthy’s treatment court has made this new life possible.