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In Suffolk County, a court that understands the needs of veterans

Clifford Graebe, 69, of Centereach, at a Suffolk

Clifford Graebe, 69, of Centereach, at a Suffolk Veterans Court ceremony in Central Islip on Tuesday. Credit: Randee Daddona

Vietnam veteran Clifford Graebe had never felt fully comfortable without access to a gun since he was shot through the thigh in 1970, during a jungle encounter near the Demilitarized Zone.

But when police responding to a burglary at his home later realized he had an unregistered handgun, Graebe, 69, found himself facing criminal charges that could have landed him in jail.

Fortunately, Graebe says, his case was handled in Suffolk County’s Veterans Court, by a judge who was himself a combat veteran and knew what it was like for soldiers to come home burdened by war anxieties.

“I was scared every day I was [in Vietnam], so your weapon was your best friend and stayed with you everywhere you went,” said Graebe, who was arrested in 2015. “That’s what I liked about Judge Toomey. He understood what you had been through. I felt naked without a gun.”

The Suffolk County Veterans Court, which was set up in 2010 to handle criminal cases involving military veterans, has gotten even more veteran friendly, observers say, thanks to the recent hiring of prosecutors, public defenders and even a presiding judge who all have been in the military.

“I had a lot of empathy for these guys coming back because I can understand how they are struggling,” said Judge John Toomey, a draftee who had been in Vietnam less than a month when he was involved in a battle that cost the lives of 17 U.S. soldiers, and who was awarded a Bronze Star for his service. “Once you factor in [post traumatic stress disorder] and brain injury, it can be very difficult. I can understand, and they understand that I understand.”

When Toomey retired in January, he was replaced by Pierce Cohalan, an Army reservist who was embedded with special forces and infantry troops during a 10-month Afghanistan deployment in 2012.

“It has given me a very good perspective of what soldiers in combat see and experience on a daily basis, and the impact that has on them,” said Cohalan.

Others with military experience involved in Suffolk Veterans Court proceedings include Chad Lennon, a Marine Corps reservist who is the assistant district attorney handling Veterans Court prosecutions. Daniel Pilo, a Purple Heart decorated Army veteran, joined the Suffolk Legal Aid Society in September.

Also on hand are green-jacketed members of the advocacy group Vietnam Veterans of America who serve as court-sanctioned mentors, advising defendants on everything from what to expect of judicial proceedings to what they should wear when they appear in court.

“They have a better understanding of what the military is like and guys like me went through,” Graebe said. “A lot of things I saw and did in the military, like picking up a guy’s leg and putting it in the helicopter with him, people said, ‘Hush, forget about it.’ ”

Veterans courts — there is also one in Nassau County — have been diverting eligible veterans from the traditional criminal-justice system since the first was established in Buffalo in 2008. Based on a belief that treatment can be preferable to punishment, these courts are designed to address behavioral issues that may have contributed to the veteran’s arrest.

People who serve in the military occasionally are left with long-lasting psychological burdens, experts say. Such psychological troubles can be brought on by witnessing battlefield deaths, suffering concussive brain injuries and coping with a no-excuses military culture that can discourage individuals from seeking help. Those and other issues can sometimes lead to alcoholism, substance abuse, anger issues, strained relationships, unemployment, or homelessness.

“The overwhelming majority of people who serve in the military live outstanding, productive lives,” said Ken Rosenblum, a Vietnam veteran and retired Touro Law School associate dean, who in 2013 founded the school’s Veterans’ and Servicemembers’ Rights Clinic. “But putting that aside, for some people, their military service creates behaviors that makes it more likely that they will cross paths with the criminal-justice system.”

The Suffolk district attorney’s office has the final say whether to divert a defendant to Veterans Court — doing so based on the severity of the crime, psychological examinations and evaluations of the defendant’s past criminal history and military records.

Defendants are assigned a case manager provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, at Northport, who helps develop a court-mandated program of psychological counseling, substance-abuse rehab, or other treatment. If needed, veterans can also receive help with finding relationship therapy, housing assistance, employment counseling or other services.

Participants who agree to plead guilty, and to return to court as often as several times each month for supervision, have their sentence deferred until they complete the program, which usually takes a year.

Graebe was ordered to participate in a yearlong program of psychotherapy sessions, and to continue working with a post traumatic stress disorder therapy group he had already been participating with for about 10 years.

“I was satisfied with the way it worked out,” Graebe said. “I didn’t know about the Vets court until my attorney told me about it. I thought the outcome was fair.”

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