One of the many times Juan Morales fought in Afghanistan, he carried a wounded soldier to safety amid an enemy ambush.
“It was a pretty big attack,” the 33-year-old Aurora man said. But it was just one of many. He said he found himself in battle nearly every day for four months while a member of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division.
Morales became a team leader before returning home with the “knee of a 70-year-old” and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Then his troubles were nearly compounded when, while receiving treatment at Edward Hines Jr. Veterans Administration Hospital, he said he was caught on the grounds of the federal facility last spring with a knife he forgot to leave at home.
That oversight helped land him in front of a federal judge — a daunting moment for anyone. But months later, Morales became one of the first six graduates of the Northern District of Illinois’ Veterans Treatment Court, which aims to help veterans charged with federal misdemeanors get the help they need.
“They got me in touch with the right people,” Morales said.
U.S. District Chief Judge Ruben Castillo presided over the graduation ceremony Dec. 4 at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse, where he acknowledged the difficulties people like Morales face when navigating the federal court system.
“It’s a very difficult journey,” Castillo said, “and it’s a journey with many, many obstacles.”
The new veterans court was established in October 2016. It collaborates with the John Marshall Law School Veterans Legal Support Center and Clinic to let honorably discharged veterans enter a diversion agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s office if charged with a misdemeanor.
The veterans complete programs focused on PTSD, anger management, mental health, and drug and alcohol addiction. They also meet with U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan E. Cox once a month. Prosecution is dropped for vets who successfully complete treatment and commit no new offenses.
Morales said his knee injury “pretty much took me out of the career that I wanted” — either in the military or law enforcement. And once he began grappling with PTSD, enduring nightmares on a regular basis, he said he had trouble holding down any job.
“I was always ‘poor me, poor me,’” Morales said. “It was hard to find a job and hard to keep one with PTSD.”
But now Morales said he has a job at a gun range in Naperville, and he credits the veterans treatment court for his turnaround.
“Now I teach people how to defend themselves,” Morales said.