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Special Hillsborough Veterans Court provides treatment instead of jail for troubled vets

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Posted at 5:57 PM, Nov 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-11 18:56:15-05

TAMPA, Fla. — There’s a special kind of courtroom in Hillsborough County that instead of focusing on punishing veterans who break the law, it helps them try to heal.

"My second tour in Iraq took a little bit of toll on me," said David Silva, a combat veteran.

Silva did two tours in Iraq as a paratrooper for the U.S. Army. But he says the trauma of combat continued even after he came home.

"Things changed after I came back for the second time. I would get jobs and lose jobs every four months and didn’t understand why," said Silva.

And when deputies were called to his neighborhood, Silva says their radios triggered his PTSD.

"It triggered me. The radio going off. I told them I’m a combat veteran with possible PTSD and to please turn the radio down. It was a trigger when I saw three humvees in front of me disappear due to an IED, and he didn’t comply," said Silva.

Silva assaulted the officers, was arrested, and faced 10 years in prison.

"It was embarrassing to go to jail. That’s not a place for combat veterans, but it was a blessing because I was finally able to get help," said Silva.

That help came from Hillsborough County's Veterans Treatment Court.

"The Veterans Treatment Court program, not just here in Hillsborough County but across the state, is designed to help people who are struggling. Who find themselves in the criminal justice system," said Michael Scionti, VTC Judge.

Instead of jail time, veterans who commit low-level offenses can go through this specialty court that provides treatment from the V.A. and support from mentors.

"These veterans are able to better get themselves the help they need, seek counseling, and ultimately get themselves out of the criminal justice system," said Scionti.

According to Veterans Affairs, one in six veterans has a problem with drugs or alcohol, and one in five veterans has some type of mental illness or brain injury.

The V.A. also says over 700,000 U.S. veterans are in some phase of the criminal court system.

"Our ethos is to never leave a service member behind on the battlefield. That doesn’t leave you when you take the uniform off," said DJ Reyes, a retired army colonel and senior mentor with VTC.

At 0-800 hours, before court starts a small army of veteran mentors are putting together a battle plan to help troubled vets fight a different kind of war.

"It's right for our society, to try and take care of our very men and women that we sent into harm's way to defend our way of life. And when they came back with some issues, we feel it's incumbent upon us to do everything in our power to help rehabilitate them," said Reyes.

VTC has provided healing instead of punishment for more than 900 veterans who have gone through the program and with a cost of nearly $20,000 to house an inmate each year, Reyes says the program has saved Hillsborough County millions.

"The fight is different now, you’ve got to get mentally healthy because if you can’t help yourself you can’t help nobody else," said Silva.

Silva says the VTC program has saved his life.

"Yes, this program has saved my life, it gave me mental health, it gave me a place to live," said Silva.

"We feel that the Veterans Treatment Court is one of the solutions to help our veterans get well again," said Reyes.

Click here for more information about Hillsborough County's Veterans Treatment Court.