TAMPA — Ronald Waltens hadn’t expected to hear he’d have to spend 27 months in prison.
When he got the news, his spirits sank. He’d been charged with a felony of grand theft, but thought he’d probably get a year in the county jail.
He remained sullen as he was transported back to the Hillsborough County jail, where he was supposed to be the speaker that evening at the Veterans Resurgence Program graduation ceremony.
But when he walked back into the room, he felt better.
“I walk in the room, and I see my troopies there, my men, and it’s like, ‘Be grateful,’ you know,” he said. “My girl was there, too.”
Waltens, 54, was part of the first graduating class of the new program formed by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and designed to reduce recidivism within the veteran population.
Waltens enlisted in the Army in 1987. He spent four years on active duty, went into the Reserves and was an artillery observer in Operation Just Cause, the U.S. mission to remove Manuel Noriega as the leader of Panama.
Shortly after being released from the Army, he said, he began using drugs. His brushes with the law began in 1991 — first misdemeanors, then felonies.
“I forgot who I was, the things that exist inside soldiers,” he said.
The Veterans Resurgence Program was designed to remind veterans of that, said Sheriff’s Office Maj. Michael Farrier II.
“We want to restore a sense of pride from their military days and help restore them to what they once were,” Farrier said. “... In general I think you’re seeing more of an influx of issues coming into the criminal justice system. And in general, we’ve tried to do a good job of meeting those needs. But one of the neglected communities was the veteran community.”
Many veterans leave jail with their veterans benefits stripped, Farrier said, and without much of a plan for going forward.
Through the program, which started in August, veterans attend group and individual therapy sessions and are connected with resources for job placement, housing, mental health and substance abuse counseling upon their graduation. So far, more than 30 people have been through the program.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re going into prison or back into the community, as long as you’re taking those skills you’ve learned with you,” Farrier said.
Program participants are housed together in a unit decorated with flags and emblems representing the branches of the military. At times, they lend each other phone calls to help a fellow participant patch up a problem with his family or they swap stories about what they used to do.
“People come in here in this orange,” Waltens said. “They’re inmates, they’re crooks, they’re whatever they think they are.
"We always like to take a new guy and find out what branch of service they are in, and we like to watch him transition from a guy being down on his luck — made a mistake, whatever the case might be — and you just watch the soldier he was once was come out.”
Farrier said the program does not cost anything beyond the existing Sheriff’s Office operating budget.
Waltens said he will miss the others in the veterans program, but looks forward to coming out of prison. This time, he said, he thinks it will be different. He wishes the program had been around for him 20 years ago.
“The biggest thing I got out of it is that it’s not over for me,” he said. “There are people who still believe in me, in spite of what I’ve done. In spite of my record, there are still individuals who really care.”