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Veteran's court 'graduates' first class

Army veteran Lester Saylor might have been talking about a drill instructor whose training regimen helped save his life.

"She's a very tough character," said Saylor, 55, of Clearwater. "She really gave me a chance for life. She lifted me up and kept me going in the right direction. I don't ever want to disappoint her."

He was talking about Judge Dee Anna Farnell.

Saylor was one of eight veterans who appeared in Farnell's courtroom on Monday as the first graduates of the year-old Pinellas Veterans Drug Court. The court, in partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs, addresses the special needs of veterans fighting substance abuse addictions.

The graduates, who all faced drug felonies, had completed all court requirements, from paying fines to getting the required substance abuse or mental health counseling.

Most important, they are clean and sober.

As a result, their probation was ended or charges dismissed at the end of the ceremony by a beaming Farnell. Saylor, charged with cocaine possession, had his charge dismissed.

That meant the world to Saylor, a disabled veteran. He said he fell into drug addiction after getting pain medication to treat bad knees and after the deaths of friends serving in the Middle East.

"This makes you feel so proud," Saylor said.

Veterans courts are becoming increasingly popular around the nation as judges look for ways to better identify defendants who served their country and may be eligible for VA benefits. There are about 88 veteran drug courts nationally, including several in Florida.

Farnell said it was once extremely difficult to communicate with the VA to allow a veteran mired in criminal court to access benefits such as mental health counseling or homeless services.

"We never heard from Bay Pines," Farnell said, referring to the Pinellas veterans hospital in Seminole. "It was like Fort Knox. You couldn't get in."

But now the VA has a representative in court who works with veterans to access their benefits.

Richard Bickart, 58, a Navy veteran from Largo, said he didn't even realize he was eligible for VA health care until his entry into drug court.

"If it hadn't been for me getting in trouble, I wouldn't have gotten my benefits," he said.

Veterans face some obstacles unique to their service. Farnell recounted the story of one veteran who suffered a traumatic brain injury from the blast of an improvised explosive device.

"The unfortunate young man … couldn't remember to come to court," Farnell said. In any other court, that might result in an arrest warrant for a failure to appear, but not in Farnell's courtroom.

The court is overseeing the cases of about 45 veterans from all military branches. Their ages range from 24 to 63 and include veterans going back to the Vietnam War and as recent as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It was immediately clear Monday that the graduation ceremony wasn't a typical day in criminal justice. An assistant public defender sang the national anthem. Senior Judge Crockett Farnell, husband of Dee Anna Farnell, was introduced as a Marine Corps veteran.

Each graduate received a certificate of completion and a handshake from Dee Anna Farnell, who said the veterans are "getting their lives back" and will once again be assets to the community.

Participants said it is easier to endure the difficulty of battling an addiction and a criminal charge when there is a fellow veteran sitting next to you in court.

"It's a great support structure," said Bickart. "It helps you succeed."

Reach William R. Levesque at levesque@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3432.

Veteran's court 'graduates' first class 01/23/12 [Last modified: Monday, January 23, 2012 11:27pm]
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