By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
"I think it's very fair to say Colorado is taking a lead on the issue," says Chris Deutsch, associate director of communications for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, which is advocating the development of veterans courts.
Colorado's involvement began with the effort to get a veterans court up and running in El Paso County. Key agencies there quickly saw the need for such a program. Along with McAteer in the public defender's office, the 4th Judicial District Attorney's Office and the district's probation department signed on, as did representatives from Veterans Affairs. They found a critical supporter in 4th Judicial District Judge Ronald Crowder, a major general in the Army National Guard who volunteered to preside over the court. And while the military wasn't getting involved in a civilian program, the court apparently has Fort Carson's blessing. "The El Paso County veterans court is a great example of this community's commitment to veterans," says Lieutenant Colonel Steve Wollman, public affairs officer for the Fort Carson-based 4th Infantry Division.
But questions quickly arose about what type of cases the court would take. The district attorney's office, for example, only wanted to allow non-violent offenses in the program. (The veterans court bills currently being considered in the Colorado legislature and the U.S. Senate also exclude most violent offenders.)
Watch an interview with Nic Gray here.
Such prohibitions don't make sense to Alvarez, the Wounded Warrior psychotherapist who chairs the El Paso County veterans court's advisory committee. "The violent offenders need help more than anybody," he says, noting that many of the perpetrators in the Fort Carson murders had previously committed violent offenses such as domestic violence. "The very skills these people are taught to follow in combat are the skills that are a risk at home. They're trained to react instantly to a threat, because if not, people die."
The agencies developing the court struggled to work out their differences and also to meet the federal grant requirements. Although a few test cases involving veterans appeared in Crowder's courtroom this past August, the court was still not officially open.
In November, more than a year after the money had been set aside to start the veterans court, Alvarez sat in his Colorado Springs office and threw up his hands. "In my opinion," he said, "I'm not feeling the love." Cases that seemed perfect for veterans court were falling by the wayside. Alvarez had recently heard about this situation involving a vet named Nic Gray, who was living in a quiet Colorado Springs neighborhood and then, one night, went down the block and kicked in a neighbor's door — as if he were clearing a house of enemy insurgents back in Iraq. Alvarez had repeatedly reached out to the district attorney's office, he said, asking if Gray's case could be considered for the veterans court.
Weeks later, he still hadn't received an answer from the DA.
When Gray came to on October 22, he was wearing an orange jumpsuit and sitting in a holding cell in the El Paso County Jail.
He couldn't remember anything after the phone conversation with his Army buddy. The best he could figure was that something in their conversation had triggered something, another dark secret in his brain he'd learned to suppress.
A jail clerk told him about his strange nocturnal escapades, which had brought him two felonies for criminal trespassing and criminal intent along with a misdemeanor mischief charge. He could be looking at three to five years in prison.
Once he bailed out of jail, he realized the enormity of what he was facing. Business meetings he'd scheduled overseas had to be canceled, since he wasn't allowed to leave the state. He didn't know how far he'd be able to take NG Enterprises if he ended up a convicted felon. As for the potential prison time — he didn't like to think about that.
It was as if someone had taken his all-important plans and torn them to shreds.
When Gray reached out to the VA, his doctors said they couldn't explain what had transpired that night, but noted that similar things had happened to other vets. It turned out that Gray knew one of those vets personally. When he told an Army buddy what he'd done, he was told, "Just don't do what Casey Briggs did."
Gray went online and looked up Briggs, who'd served in his company in Iraq. He discovered that on October 27, just a few days after his own incident, Briggs had experienced an eerily similar chain of events. While drinking in a Maryland bar, Briggs had blacked out, and later came to in the back of a squad car. He was told he'd been rampaging through a quiet neighborhood, firing off his handgun, and had tried to force his way into a stranger's house. While he swore he couldn't remember any of it, he was slapped with a variety of criminal charges.
Two days later, Briggs used a sheet to hang himself in his jail cell. It was the third suicide from Gray's 250-soldier unit.
Gray swore he wouldn't be the fourth. Over the past few years he'd faced down the horrors of Iraq, childhood trauma and PTSD; he could handle this setback, too. In early December, he sat in the headquarters of NG Enterprises, a one-room office on the top floor of one of downtown Colorado Springs's few high-rises, and mapped out contingency plans. "If the DA's office has an agenda to push in this case in order to make a name for themselves, they need to prepare for battle," he declared, looking out over the city. "I am coming out swinging."