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Altman: Veterans court judge gets praise from an old classmate — the VA secretary

Hillsborough Circuit Court Judge Gregory Holder received praise from outgoing Veterans Affairs Secretary  Robert McDonald for his work on the county’s veterans court. The two were classmates at West Point.
Hillsborough Circuit Court Judge Gregory Holder received praise from outgoing Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald for his work on the county’s veterans court. The two were classmates at West Point.
Published Jan. 27, 2017

It's always nice to see a shoutout from old classmates praising your work.

And that's just what happened recently to Hillsborough County Circuit Court Judge Gregory Holder.

The message was on the forum page of the U.S. Military Academy's Class of 1975. And it was from Robert McDonald, the outgoing secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

McDonald was praising the work of Holder, his former West Point classmate, with the Hillsborough County Veterans Treatment Court.

"I wanted to add a bit more perspective to those unfamiliar with Veterans Treatment Courts and Greg's lifesaving work," McDonald wrote. "Five years ago there were no Veterans Treatment Courts in the country. So Veterans who got in trouble with the jurisprudence system ... were treated like any civilian, often incarcerated, and often homeless when the incarceration ended. Because of fantastic, patriotic judges like Greg, we now have over 400 Veterans Treatment Courts."

The Hillsborough County Veterans Treatment Court was launched in October 2013 by county Circuit Judge Richard Weis, an Army Reserve lieutenant colonel. Weis said he wanted to do something about the steady stream of misdemeanor charges filed against veterans suffering from service-related problems.

The program was expanded in February 2015, to include veterans accused of felonies. The underlying issues are the same, Holder said, and the approach is comprehensive, with the court, prosecutors, the public defender, the Veterans Administration and the county all taking part.

In December, Judge Michael Scionti, another veteran, took over the court.

McDonald cited veterans working for veterans as one reason for success.

The Veterans Treatment Court, McDonald said, is a place "where a veteran who gets in trouble with the law, can enter a VTC, with a judge like Greg who is a veteran, and Greg's team can work with the VA to set up a treatment program for the individual at the VA, usually avoiding incarceration, with strict monitoring and probation, and avoid homelessness."

The success rate, McDonald wrote, "is north of 85 percent. Because of judges like Greg, veteran homelessness is down -50 percent since 2010. Greg, we salute you, sir, for your patriotism, your service, and all you do for veterans! "

Holder said he was moved by the missive, written by a man he first met in 1971 as the two were "eating dirt" as academy plebes.

"I am humbled by it," Holder said. "I am very proud to be a member of this circuit and proud to have served in the Veterans Treatment Court."

Holder was reprimanded last year by the Florida Supreme Court for going too far in advocating for one of the Veterans Treatment Court veterans.

As welcome as McDonald's missive may be, Holder doesn't view it as redemption.

"I am not looking for vindication," said Holder, who retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 2004.

Making a positive impact on troubled veterans is what counts, he said. Since its inception, the court has saved taxpayers millions of dollars in prosecution and jail costs, Holder said. But the true savings runs even deeper, he said.

"You can't even put a price on the positive impact the court has. We as the VTC are truly saving lives."

•••

The Pentagon announced no new deaths last week in ongoing operations.

There have been 2,347 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan; 32 U.S. troop deaths and one civilian Department of Defense employee death in support of the follow-up, Operation Freedom's Sentinel in Afghanistan; 28 troop deaths and one civilian death in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, the fight against the Islamic State; and one troop death in support of Operation Odyssey Lightning, the fight against Islamic State in Libya.

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

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