Soapbox

Wounded once in Afghanistan, and again in Sacramento

In 2011, my Marine unit was deployed to Afghanistan, and I was severely wounded by an improvised explosive device.

I lost my left hand and sustained fragmentation injuries to my arms and legs, requiring numerous surgeries and months of hospitalization. The mental and emotional trauma was just as damaging.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a service member’s worse nightmare. It became my nightmare. To escape from my battlefield memories, I began abusing illegal drugs and started shoplifting to support my addiction. Eventually, I was arrested and jailed. My future seemed bleak.

But the staff at Veterans’ Court in San Diego stepped in, reaching out to me while I was behind bars. The court worked with the Marine Corps and had me transferred to a residential substance-abuse program.

I had a serious relapse five months into treatment and was expelled. But the Veterans’ Court didn’t give up. My mentor, Patrick Russell, worked with court staff members to find another facility willing to accept me. After several more months of intensive treatment, some of it as tough as boot camp, I completed the program.

Upon graduating in November 2015, the criminal charges were dismissed. I’ve been a law-abiding-citizen, and clean and sober, since.

I believe I am alive today because of the people in the San Diego County Veterans’ Court. What makes these courts work? The people who work for them understand the post-deployment issues veterans face. Their goal is to give veterans a second chance.

As a result of successfully completing the Veterans’ Court program, I developed a renewed sense of purpose. I volunteer at the Veterans Administration as a mentor and am attending college full time. My plan is to become a clinical psychologist, to help other veterans.

My story isn’t unique. Veterans’ Courts throughout our nation are working. But last month, the Senate Appropriations Committee quietly rejected Assembly Bill 1672, essentially telling our military men and women that their path to redemption doesn’t matter.

AB 1672 by Assemblyman Devon Mathis, R-Visalia, was straightforward. The measure would have funded a study as a step toward expanding the reach of Veterans’ Courts in the 29 California counties that don’t offer them.

The cost of the study was small for this state, $200,000, and philanthropist B. Wayne Hughes Jr. had agreed to pay for half the cost.

Veterans’ Courts offer veterans who have committed low-level offenses an opportunity to enroll in recovery programs. The goal is rehabilitation, not incarceration. The point is to help wounded veterans who have served our nation.

In recent years, legislators and voters have rolled back the “three strikes” sentencing law and reduced penalties for numerous drug offense and property crimes. Gov. Jerry Brown is pushing Proposition 57 on the Nov. 8 ballot to offer certain prison inmates time off their sentences if they try to improve themselves.

And yet this year, legislators turned their back on veterans.

As a Marine who witnessed and endured the unspeakable horrors of war, I felt abandoned. Our brave veterans, who risked their lives for our freedom, deserve better; they deserve an opportunity to redeem themselves, and they also deserve a life filled with hope. I hope the Legislature and governor address this issue as soon as they come back into session.

Jeremy Thomas, 25, was a lance corporal in the Marine Corps and was discharged in 2014. He lives in San Diego. Email jeremythomas_2391@icloud.com.

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