ANDERSON, Ind. — Judge Thomas Clem routinely processed the orange and white jumpsuit clad defendants, manacled in the jury box and waiting to hear the charges against them.
Until he faced a young, bewildered woman.
Police had found her sitting in the middle of a roadway intersection with items she’d taken from a convenience store. They charged her with theft and obstruction of traffic.
“Judge," she said, " I want to know why I’m here, why I’m dressed like this, and why I have these things on my hands?”
After 22 years on the bench, Clem knows when he’s being scammed. His instincts told him this wasn’t one of those times. She hadn’t understood anything he’d said.
A check of the woman’s background explained why. She was a U.S. Navy veteran who had fallen overboard on a ship, suffering a traumatic brain injury. There was a reason she appeared dazed and confused.
That chance encounter last summer led the creation of the Madison County Veteran Treatment Court, a special court to deal with military personnel who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or serious brain injury.
An increasing number of veterans return home from war zone duty facing mental health issues, and find themselves in trouble with the law. Clem said the Veteran Treatment Court is a way for them to get the medical and recovery help they need.
“We started in August and we’re going at warp speed,” Clem told veteran groups and county officials gathered in his court Friday. “Our veterans have fought for us, now it’s time for us to fight for them."
To be eligible for the Veterans Court, participants must have been honorably discharged from the military and agree to enroll in programs designed to overcome their problems.
“We hold their feet to the fire," said Clem. "This is not a free ride for these vets."
Stu Hirsch is a reporter for the Anderson, Ind., Herald-Bulletin.