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The Pulse: Court help for veterans who become addicts

The pattern has become all too common: Soldiers injured in service to their nation are prescribed pain medication, get hooked, run out of prescriptions, graduate to heroin, and turn to a life of crime to support their habit.

The pattern has become all too common:

Soldiers injured in service to their nation are prescribed pain medication, get hooked, run out of prescriptions, graduate to heroin, and turn to a life of crime to support their habit.

In the Vietnam War era, those veterans would have to navigate the normal criminal justice system. Today, thanks to an innovative program begun by a judge in Buffalo, there is an alternative path that recognizes their unique situation.

Welcome to Veterans Treatment Court.

"It's a vicious irony, as the soldier who served his country honorably is hooked on drugs by a military doctor and then the system tosses them aside," according to York County Common Pleas Court Judge Craig Trebilcock, a colonel in the Army Reserves. Trebilcock also presides at one of the 131 Veterans Treatment Courts across the country. Pennsylvania has more than any other state.

The courts were begun in 2008 by Judge Robert T. Russell Jr., who sits on the City Court in Buffalo. It was Russell who saw and acted on the need after noticing an increase in the number of veterans appearing on his drug and mental-health dockets. His idea was that veterans entangled in the justice system should appear in front of judges with a unique understanding of their problems.

The need is clear:

One in five veterans has symptoms of a mental-health disorder or cognitive impairment, and one in six who served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffers from a substance-abuse issue, according to Justice For Vets, a division of the National Association of Drug Court professionals, which supports the veterans court movement. And research continues to draw a link between substance abuse and combat-related mental illness. The specialized veterans courts are trying to fix this cycle. They combine biweekly court appearances with treatment for substance abuse and mental illness - essentially putting the pieces back together in a structured environment.

Justin Slesser is one of the lucky ones.

"Without the veterans court, I'd probably be dead," he told me.

Slesser is a 29-year-old Iraq war veteran who was addicted to painkillers as a result of injuries sustained during his service. When he lost his access to prescription pain meds, he turned to heroin and a life of crime. After being drummed out the military, he built a rap sheet and lost his marriage.

Slesser, an Army Reservist, was 20 when he stepped foot in Iraq in December 2004. After graduating from the Red Land High School in Lewisberry, Pa., he'd gone to basic training and then matriculated at Penn State. During his freshman year, he was mobilized and deployed with the Army.

During his 13 months in Iraq, he was injured twice. The first time, the specialist fell off a Humvee while helping a 50-caliber gunner unload his weaponry. A second fall, from a 21/2-ton cargo carrier, necessitated three weeks of medical treatment in Germany. He was sent back to Iraq with a six-month supply of Percocet (five milligrams, four times daily). When he finished his tour, he returned home.

Back at Penn State, Slesser found that Percocet was no longer strong enough to medicate his condition. Veterans Affairs supplemented the Percocet with OxyContin. Finally, his prescription requests were denied, and he doctor-shopped. When, on a military exercise in 2009 in North Dakota, he received a prescription to last a few days, he staged a break-in to make it look as if he had been the victim of theft. After he was caught, he was returned to his unit, the 358th Engineer Company. By now he was a staff sergeant. And a drug addict.

During training at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin, Slesser was prescribed oxycodone for the first time while on duty. After returning to his unit, his first-line leader asked whether he thought he had a problem. It was the first time anyone had asked.

Despite his denial, Slesser was not permitted to finish the training. That's when he began forging prescriptions and stealing medication. Caught, Slesser was told he could face dishonorable discharge, but, in view of his service, would be granted a general discharge under honorable circumstances. His military career was over, but not his dependency.

By 2010, he had turned to heroin. After running afoul of the law in five south-central Pennsylvania counties, Slesser found himself an inmate at the Lebanon County jail for nine months. Luckily for him, help arrived in the form of Judge Trebilcock.

Slesser worked with an attorney and a veterans outreach officer to get his legal troubles consolidated. He received substance-abuse counseling in West Virginia and then entered a program for post-traumatic stress disorder. Two months ago, he graduated from the veterans treatment program.

Now, he's a reverse logistics coordinator for a distribution company. His employer knows of his history, and today, he is clean.

"Mine is unique only that you don't see a lot of guys who are college educated who shoot up ranks and go through this," Slesser told me, "but it is becoming more common."

With the exception of his first marriage, he has been able to restore much of what he threatened. Today he has remarried, has an infant daughter and another child on the way. He regrets not yet being able to reconcile and apologize to his ex-wife and her family, something that he says "haunts him."

"Someday, I hope to sit down and apologize for everything that happened and move forward," he said. "Honestly, that's going to be at their discretion, not mine. I've been ready."

Trebilcock is proud of Slesser's turnaround.

"He is highly intelligent, eloquent, was an outstanding sergeant in Iraq, and became an incredible addict who was essentially using his organizational skills learned in the Army to coordinate stealing, using drugs in a four- to five-county area with a number of other people," the judge said. "It took over a year, but we got him off the heroin, and he is once again highly successful."