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Denver Drug Court builds new treatment track focused on veterans

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The Denver Drug Court's treatment program is split into more than a handful of individualized tracks, but until earlier this month, none catered specifically to the needs of veterans. While they make up 5 to 8 percent of the 850 people enrolled, vets remain the least likely to receive help. They're also the least likely to ask for it.

Thanks in large part to a grant through the Department of Behavioral Health, the Denver Drug Court was able to begin an individualized track in early September. The research for the program began earlier, however. On August 12, the organization tested its goal with a veterans fair, which joined the program's eligible veterans with those whose job it is to help them.

The results were surprising. The invited veterans stayed for two-and-a-half hours after the program had been explained, questions had been asked, and answers had been provided. Today, all of those who showed up are members of the track's thirty original members, who now receive individualized treatment targeted toward their military experience.

"They're indoctrinated as soldiers, and what they've been through is very different even than what others in the program might have suffered," says Kristin Wood, deputy administrator of the Denver District Court. "There's a brotherhood, a bond. They're trained to get the job done, to do whatever it takes, and those are the kind of people who really don't ask for help."

When it comes to the combination of substance abuse treatment and accountability counseling that makes up their program, Wood emphasizes "cultural competence," the requirement for the program to fit the needs.

The group of veterans enrolled in the Denver program is predominantly older; most served during the Vietnam era. The group's youngest member took part in the original Gulf War. For that reason, most of the thirty have long gone untreated.

"They're taught never to be defeated," Wood says. "To be able to walk in and say, 'I have this problem, and I need a lot of help' is unthinkable in many ways. Some had never been to a doctor or were homeless, and those are hard resources to find on your own, especially if you're inhibited from asking for help already."

Although the program comes with a minimum enrollment of thirteen months, it takes eighteen months to complete an average span. Veterans are provided with housing, vocational rehab and medical aid along with a strict accountability structure that finds them in court often.

"It's much more difficult than regular probation," Wood says, "They're required to come to court, and they discuss their progress with their entire team of case workers. By having everyone in the courtroom, there's no ability to play sides. All the players are there, and there's accountability with knowing that what's presented in court is true."

Many of the veterans who are eligible for the program don't classify themselves under the title because they haven't experienced combat. Others were completely unaware they qualify for a claim. While the realities of their situations vary widely, the program remains firmly dedicated to the common experience of belonging to the military -- and to the "cultural competence" required to understand it.

"They all have very different experiences from me," Wood says. "I've never served in combat. I've never seen war. I have no idea what that's like, but the important thing is to forget that and focus on what they have experienced."

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