El Paso County veterans court that helped Nic Gray has its coming-out party

As we wrote about in our February 4 cover story, a new Colorado Springs program, the El Paso County Veteran Trauma Court, recently launched to help soldiers who've come back from war and found themselves caught in the criminal justice system.

One soldier it's already helped is Nic Gray, a Iraq war veteran who inexplicably blacked out one October night in Colorado Springs and came to the next day to discover he'd busted into his neighbor's house and was now looking at three-to-five years in prison.

As one of the first people to go before the veteran court, Gray was assigned treatment, not prison time. And now, with those first few test cases behind them and most of the kinks worked out, the program's backers are ready to officially unveil it to the world moments from now.

At a 1 p.m. news conference today at the El Paso County Judicial Building, officials will announce the court's "official opening." Given the national attention the recent murders and other crimes associated with Fort Carson have received, the event could be well covered. Many of the main players behind the program will be there, possibly including local legislators like Senator Josh Penry and Representative Marsha Looper.

One person who will be there but will likely not get the due she deserves is Laura Williams, project director for the Colorado Division of Behavioral Health. Williams, who's long been on the front lines of helping folks around here recover from trauma, including people affected by the Columbine shootings and evacuees from Hurricane Katrina, was instrumental in the state scoring the $2 million federal grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration that bankrolled the Colorado Springs court. She's also labored to ensure that the disparate parties working on the court were always able to find common ground.

Officials now estimate that 1,540 veterans will receive treatment services thanks to the federal grant. Surely none of them would have such an opportunity if it wasn't for the behind-the-scenes efforts of folks like Williams.

There are many examples of what happens to veterans when support systems like veterans courts aren't in place. As part of our recent feature, we noted that another soldier from Gray's company, Casey Briggs, found himself in a similar legal bind just a few days after Gray got in trouble. He blacked out one night in Maryland, and when he woke up in the back of a squad car, he learned he'd rampaged through a neighborhood, firing off his gun and trying to barge into a house. But Briggs's case had a very different outcome than Gray's: Facing a variety of criminal charges from the incident, he committed suicide a few days after his arrest.

Last week, we received a letter from Briggs's parents. While we get all sorts of responses to stories, both positive and negative, there are a few that stand out. This was one of them:

My wife found your Feb. 3rd article about Veterans Courts on line yesterday. It was very well written. Thank you for taking the time to research it. In it, you mentioned Casey Briggs, a member of the same company Sgt. Gray was in, and what happened to him in Maryland. My wife and I are Casey's parents. The particulars about Sgt. Gray's story leading up to Casey's arrest are indeed quite similar. We are glad Sgt. Gray survived his jail time.

If it is possible, sir, would you please pass a message along to Sgt. Gray from my wife and me thanking him for his service to this Nation and telling him that we will pray for him and a successful and happy outcome to his situation. It is our hope that law enforcement and the military will be able to work more closely and efficiently to protect those who are willing to go into harm's way for this country from outcomes such as befell Casey.

We pray that Sgt. Gray has a long, fruitful, and happy life and that he continues his outreach to our veterans.

Thank you very much.

Tom Briggs

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner