Nate Moser stood in a Skokie courtroom and thanked those who helped him stay out of prison.
“My defense — thank you,” the Navy vet said, adding, to laughter, “and the prosecution—thank you.”
“You don’t hear that very often,” interjected Michael J. Hood, a District 2 associate judge.
Then again, it is not often that the legal system goes to such effort to help those caught up in it. This was not a usual session in a typical courtroom, but graduation day in Veterans Court, one of Illinois’ 123 problem-solving courts. The idea is, rather than use justice as an indifferent conveyor of punishment, to turn it into an engine of compassion, resources, and attention, trying to address the problems that land military veterans in trouble.
“This is the best form of justice, the most successful program we have,” said specialty court coordinator Kelly Gallivan-Ilarraza. “We have the team approach. The case manager, probation officer, public defender, state’s attorney, problem-solving court coordinator, sit around the table and talk about what the person needs. Whatever they need, we try to get them: housing, education, employment. If they had mental illness, if they need medication, if they need treatment, whatever it is, to get them the tools so they don’t come back.”
While Veterans Day, which falls on Thursday this year, is a time to praise veterans and their heroism and sacrifice, the difficult realities facing many veterans often are overlooked. Of all military personnel who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, 9% have been arrested since their return, and veterans are at greater risk for substance abuse, suicide and problems related to PTSD and head trauma. Plus a trauma only now being recognized.
“We’re seeing a lot more cases of military sexual trauma,” said Sherisa R. Benson, veteran’s justice outreach specialist at Captain James A. Lovell Health Care Center, the VA hospital in North Chicago. “It’s a fairly recent thing. People consider it a disorder now. It’s something that we screen for.”
The graduation marks the veterans’ release from the legal system.
“Today is huge for our graduates,” said Benson. “I’m so grateful to have the honor to see them from start to finish. Life has just beaten them down. They go through the program and have this confidence.”
“Most of our participants would be incarcerated if they didn’t come to these programs,” said Gallivan-Ilarraza. “It’s the last chance to give them the opportunity to address whatever demons or illness they have. We help the individual put their life back together so they never come back.”
Holding a blue Big Book, the basic text of Alcoholics Anonymous, his eyes welling up, Moser talked about the “really bad situation that took place in my home of residence” and what happened afterward.
“Went to a psych ward, got out, went to a sober living house, Skokie came and charged me,” Moser said. “I was still eligible to go back to work by the skin of my teeth. Judge Hood saw my background, and my military record, and allowed me a chance.”
Hood, a Marine (there are no “former Marines”) who runs the District 2 Veterans Court, praised his graduating vets.
“Each one of these men selflessly stood up to serve, each one raised their right hand, swore an oath to defend this country against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” said Hood. “I’m proud to be here with them as a military member. I get duty, I get mission and I’m proud to know each and every one of them.”
Having a vet on the other side of the bench helps.
“We don’t listen to people unless they know how to do pushups,” said John, an Army vet who graduated during COVID but returned to thank those who helped him in person.
“I’m going to miss being on probation,” said Ryan, a Marine who served two tours in Iraq and didn’t want his last name used, so as not to blot his new lease on life. “Because this program mirrors the military, in a way. A bunch of miscreant, deviant human beings. I love them so much, and it’s obvious the people in the program love us too.”
He turned to Hood.
“I don’t want to stay, sir, thank you very much.”
Also in attendance was a representative from the Quilts of Valor Foundation, which presents patriotic handmade quilts to veterans.
“As a quilter, we put a lot of love and care to these quilts that they would bring comfort to the veterans,” said Beverly Schultze, from the Illinois chapter of the national organization that has awarded 283,000 quilts since it was founded in 2003. “We wrap people in their quilts to make sure they know warmth and comfort.”
At the end, each vet left with both a quilt and a gift that most already have, though they may not appreciate it.
“As if I never had gotten in trouble,” marveled Vince, a Coast Guard vet. “You literally put my life back to where it’s supposed to be. I can’t thank you enough. I’d never done anything bad in my life, and when I did bad, I thought my life was over. Because of this program, and everyone in it, my life’s back where it’s supposed to be. It’s kind of bittersweet, because if I had never done a bad thing, I’d have never met the wonderful people in this room. It’s bittersweet because so much good came out of the bad, and I just want to thank you guys.”
The audience was charged with their own mission.
“We always remember our veterans on the 11th,” said Hood. “Everyone does a great job of that. But let’s try to think of our veterans the other 364. There are a lot of ways to help veterans, and I challenge everybody to figure out a way over the next year to help a veteran. Two great organizations that are in this room are all-in: Friends of Recovery and Quilts of Valor. Find a way to do that.”
To find out more about Quilts of Valor, go to https://www.qovf.org/.
To find out more about Friends in Recovery United, go to https://friendsofrecovery.org/.