If Carlos Melendez has mental problems, that's news to him. Sitting on a wooden bench outside State District Judge Mike Snipes' courtroom, the 20-year Air Force veteran can't explain why exactly he was accepted as an inaugural member of Dallas County's veterans court—the latest so-called "specialty" court aimed at preventing recidivism and relieving pressure on crowded jails.

Much like Dallas' 13 other specialty courts, the veterans court carefully monitors and provides low-level offenders access to medical and substance abuse treatment. In Melendez's case, if he completes the court's six-month program successfully—attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings, stays sober, maintains a home, looks for work—his criminal record will be destroyed.

It's not as though Melendez couldn't use a helping hand or a second chance. The 60-year-old recovering drug addict is on the verge of bankruptcy and faces two felony charges after two arrests in April for possessing 1.1 grams of methamphetamine and manufacturing and delivering another 12.1 grams. But to have qualified for the court, Melendez must suffer from "a brain injury, mental illness, or mental disorder, including post-traumatic stress disorder" resulting from military service in a combat zone or "other similar hazardous duty area," according to the 2009 law that allowed the creation of veterans courts statewide.

Vietnam veteran Charles Clemons claims he was formally accepted into Dallas County's veterans court in May, but Judge Mike Snipes says his charge is "too serious," leaving Clemons to attend court sessions as an outsider.
Mark Graham
Vietnam veteran Charles Clemons claims he was formally accepted into Dallas County's veterans court in May, but Judge Mike Snipes says his charge is "too serious," leaving Clemons to attend court sessions as an outsider.
An Iraq veteran and first-term state district criminal court judge, Mike Snipes presides over one of Texas' first veterans courts that offers low-level offenders a clean criminal record after the completion of a six-month treatment program.
Mark Graham
An Iraq veteran and first-term state district criminal court judge, Mike Snipes presides over one of Texas' first veterans courts that offers low-level offenders a clean criminal record after the completion of a six-month treatment program.
Diagnosed with PTSD after returning last year from his second deployment to Iraq, Army Sergeant Aaron Dillon is now mentoring the veterans court's most troubled case: 22-year-old Eric Marquez, who's failed three drug tests. "I think he needs a lot of guidance and a lot of help," Dillon says.
Mark Graham
Diagnosed with PTSD after returning last year from his second deployment to Iraq, Army Sergeant Aaron Dillon is now mentoring the veterans court's most troubled case: 22-year-old Eric Marquez, who's failed three drug tests. "I think he needs a lot of guidance and a lot of help," Dillon says.
Vietnam veteran and former drug addict Tom Madrzykowski can identify with the participants he mentors in Dallas County's veterans court. "I hear the same excuses I used 25 and 30 years ago," he says.
Mark Graham
Vietnam veteran and former drug addict Tom Madrzykowski can identify with the participants he mentors in Dallas County's veterans court. "I hear the same excuses I used 25 and 30 years ago," he says.

Melendez says he wasn't given the results of his mental health assessment from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which also must determine that any brain injury or illness stemming from his service "materially affected" his criminal conduct to lawfully secure his eligibility.

Melendez enlisted in the Air Force in 1970, and he never saw combat in Vietnam, instead spending 14 years in Germany, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands before retiring in 1990 in Colorado. He says he never suffered any major injuries or trauma, but because his medical records aren't public record, the explanation for how he met the court's criteria remains a mystery—at least to him.

"The only thing I can think of is it's my past alcoholism," guesses Melendez, a recovering alcoholic since 1994.

Melendez's case may seem an odd one to fall under the special court's jurisdiction, but it's likely there will be plenty of other veterans whose qualifications are not so hard to pin down. As the number of soldiers returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental illnesses rises, veterans courts have spread quickly into 43 cities across the country from New York to Hawaii and states in between since a Buffalo city judge opened the first court in January 2008. A whopping 28 percent (more than 140,000) of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans receiving treatment from the VA are PTSD patients as of March of this year, according to Veterans for Common Sense. A 2008 study by the RAND Corporation's Center for Military Health Policy Research estimated that approximately 20 percent (300,000) of the soldiers returning from the two wars suffered from PTSD or major depression, and of the 53 percent who sought treatment, just over half received "minimally adequate treatment."

These untreated veterans often turn to alcohol and illegal drugs to self-medicate.

"It's tough to come back," says state Representative Allen Vaught, a Dallas Democrat, Iraq War veteran and co-author of the legislation creating the veterans courts. "It's tough to be in a crowded place. It's tough to go drive on a crowded freeway, go shopping inside a Walmart. Simple things that people will take for granted are significant emotional experiences for these veterans who are suffering."

Local statistics linking military status and incarceration aren't available, but a 2004 study by the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics said one in 10 U.S. prisoners had been in the military and reported a 53 percent increase in the number of veterans in state and federal prisons from 1985 to 2000. Getting these veterans out of the criminal justice system and into treatment became a passion for Vaught, who says he's the first one to champion the idea in Texas.

"It basically enables them to get a second chance at life," he says.

At downtown's Frank Crowley Courts Building on a muggy late-August morning, Judge Snipes calls out the names of the veterans he's expecting to see in the gallery. At 8 a.m. every Monday, the first-term judge requires the veterans assigned to his court to appear for status updates and, in several cases, provide urine samples, or UAs—short for urinalyses.

"We have mixed results here today," he says.

Eric Marquez and James Spears are no-shows. Spears, 41, is in Arkansas visiting his mother, who has cancer, he told the court. Marquez didn't manage to appear even though Tom Madrzykowski, one of the court's volunteer mentors, drove from Irving to Grand Prairie just to pick him up. Both Marquez and Spears have failed previous drug tests.

"He doesn't want to test positive today," Madrzykowski says of Marquez.

Snipes focuses instead on 47-year-old recovering heroin addict Tim Carmack, giving him the name and phone number of a woman at the VA who can help him schedule a treatment assessment for his teeth, which are missing in the front. He also tells David Adame, accused of choking his wife and then kicking her while she lay on the floor, that he's been hearing "good things" about him. Adame is preparing for a two-week stint of training with the Army National Guard with hopes of becoming a helicopter mechanic.

The judge saves his highest praise for Melendez.

"You're probably our No. 1 success story," Snipes says.

Melendez has been testing negative for drugs since entering the program. He's found temporary bathroom and floor remodeling work and maintains a steady residence. But even though Snipes must approve each candidate for the court along with the District Attorney's Office, he doesn't know what mental issue allowed Melendez to make the cut and is undaunted when told that Melendez doesn't know either. "These guys are not [very bright], so that doesn't surprise me that he couldn't articulate what it is," Snipes says in an interview.

And when asked about the two felonies that will be permanently erased from Melendez's record if he successfully completes the program on November 15, Snipes says, "I can't tell you off the top of my head what he's got."

While Snipes may lack background knowledge about his small group of veterans—only four are officially in the program, with a handful of others on hand weekly awaiting assessments or receiving treatment—his patience and compassion are hard to miss. And he claims to know how to best go about weeding out the bad apples.

"I know a bullshitter and a maligner when I see one," he says.

When Judge Snipes agreed to accept Melendez into the program on May 11, Dallas joined Harris and Tarrant as the third Texas county to take advantage of last year's legislation. The law hands over broad power to judges and district attorneys when selecting program participants, allowing them to choose any veteran or active member of the U.S. armed forces, reserves, national or state guard accused of a misdemeanor or felony and with a proper diagnosis of a service-related mental illness or injury.

While that loose language allows for possible murderers and rapists to be accepted, Snipes and Assistant District Attorney Craig McNeil—both veterans themselves—say only offenders most likely to be considered for probation in a regular criminal court will be considered. In fact, they've agreed not to allow veterans charged with driving while intoxicated into the program, as opposed to Tarrant County, which has a few of its 14 program members charged with DWI and met some initial opposition from Mothers Against Drunk Driving when its court opened April 7.

Tarrant County Criminal Court Judge Brent Carr credits MADD for taking "a wait-and-see attitude" after expressing its concern and says his court now must pick the right candidates to show recovery and prove they're no longer a risk to society. "Otherwise, we will be subject to their condemnation, and rightfully so."

The program also met resistance in Bexar County when District Attorney Susan Reed initially pushed back against the legislation because of her policy against granting adults pretrial diversion—the act of releasing a first-time offender from jail, placing him on probation before trial and then dismissing his charges when he's successfully met conditions set by the court.

Bexar County First Assistant District Attorney Cliff Herberg says Reed changed her mind when it became clear that a grant from the governor's Criminal Justice Division was contingent on her support of the pretrial diversion component of the legislation. A veterans court is set to launch this month in San Antonio, a town known as Military City, USA, thanks to its large number of bases and retired veterans.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada and the ACLU of Colorado objected to veterans court legislation in those states, arguing that it's unfair to give preferential treatment based on military status, but ACLU of Texas spokesman Jose Medina says his group took no position on the Texas bill, which the Legislature passed unanimously.

Dallas, Tarrant and Bexar counties envision their programs to hold a maximum of around 20 veterans at any given time and modeled their courts after the state's first, which opened in Harris County last December. Still, each county has developed its own program differently. For example, Bexar County won't consider offenses higher than misdemeanors, and if a victim is involved, the victim's consent is required before an offender can be accepted.

One component Snipes felt necessary to copy from Harris County was its requirement that veterans be honorably discharged, which is not required by the legislation nor by Tarrant or Bexar counties. Dallas has applied for two grants to subsidize the program, but in the meantime, Snipes says it's running with "bubble gum and duct tape." With the county not providing funding, Snipes, the prosecutor, the probation officer, the mentors and anyone else involved provide the services on top of their normal workloads.

With no grant money on hand from the state and no county support for treatment programs, ensuring that each defendant gets full access to medical benefits from the VA is vital. Because the VA can take months to perform mental health assessments required by defendants to qualify for the court, Dallas County is eagerly awaiting word on its grant applications—one totaling approximately $70,000 with the governor's Criminal Justice Division and another of $40,000 with the Texas Veterans Commission—to broaden its program. The funds will be used to hire a full-time forensic mental health worker to handle the assessments, along with a full-time probation officer. Dave Wakefield, manager of nine of the county's 14 specialty courts, says the only funds received thus far are a $15,000 grant from the Texas Bar Foundation.

"We're just being as patient as possible," Wakefield says of the grants, which were expected to cover the period of September 1 through August 31, 2011. "I think the governor may be applying for re-election."

Harris, Bexar, Dallas and Tarrant are home to the lion's share of Texas' 1.7 million veterans, with Harris housing the most at around 190,000, according to the TVC. The TVC also estimates at least six other counties have a veterans court program in place or under consideration. Denton County commissioners approved theirs in December, but it has yet to see its first participant.

While Dallas also modeled its veterans court after its 13 other specialty courts—10 of which have popped up within the last five years—unlike those with acronyms like DIVERT and STAR that handle cases of drug addicts and prostitutes, these handpicked veterans' and service members' records are expunged, meaning all evidence of their crimes is destroyed. Essentially, wife beaters, car thieves and drug dealers are transformed into law-abiding citizens overnight.

"I would have never guessed in a million years that it had an expunction mechanism written into it," says board-certified criminal defense lawyer Bill Wirskye. "That's a pretty big carrot to put out in front of those guys. I guess it's payback for their service—that's the theory."

Wearing a flowing black robe, Snipes walks slowly around his office, pointing out the military photos and memorabilia on the walls and cabinets. He's immediately drawn to the saber he received after graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1976—a class profiled in July 2009 by The Wall Street Journal because of the surprising number of cadets who would become the generals and key deputies running the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A cadet lieutenant at West Point, Snipes gave the sword to his father, a Korean War veteran, but he has it back now after his father's recent death and mother's subsequent move into a nursing home. "I believe it was my destiny to serve in the military," he says, misquoting Lieutenant Dan Taylor, a character from the movie Forrest Gump who believed it was his destiny to die in battle.

"What I want to do is help these guys, because I've been there," Snipes says.

His 14 years of active duty in the Army included a stop in 1986 as a trial defense lawyer in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and a gig as a special assistant to Major General John Batiste during a 2004 deployment to Iraq. Snipes pauses and reflects on a picture of himself in fatigues sitting at a desk inside one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces. "I was a glorified speech writer," he says humbly, adding later that he was also responsible for "preaching the gospel of freedom and democracy to anyone who would listen."

Snipes, a Democrat elected to the bench in 2006, takes a seat in a metal chair in front of his desk and outlines three challenges facing his court. The first: machismo. "These guys are indoctrinated to think they're invincible warriors who don't need help," he says.

Then there are the homelessness and addictions that accompany several of these cases. Snipes has found a partner in Dallas LIFE, a Christianity-based organization just south of downtown that provides food, shelter, clothing and job assistance to hundreds in need, including two court participants. Even with Dallas LIFE's help, keeping veterans with mental health problems clean has proven difficult. "If someone is having nightmares about someone's leg getting blown off, they self-medicate with drugs or alcohol," Snipes says.

Finally, the judge says he'll always battle the perception that his court gives a "free pass" to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental illnesses. But he estimates that 90 percent of the cases he accepts would be granted probation by the District Attorney's Office anyway, and by only taking on offenders with honorable discharges, he's connecting veterans with VA benefits they were unaware they had.

Tracy Little, a Dallas County veterans service officer, says most veterans don't know about the benefits they're entitled to from the VA, such as disability payments, insurance and even mortgage assistance. "[Dallas] is not a military town, and so a lot of times when you get military folks here, they are not well aware of everything that's available...If it was a military town, you could go to the base or post or talk to some of the local military folks and get some information."

State Representative Vaught says the VA does a poor job of reaching out to veterans and providing them with adequate information. "I'm a combat veteran. I'm a Purple Heart recipient. I'm a disabled veteran. I'm vice chairman of [the Committee on] Defense & Veterans' Affairs in the Texas House. And I don't even know what all my benefits are. And there are a lot of great things out there, but it's hard to know what all you have."

Snipes begins discussing the participants in his program by admitting that two of them—Marquez and Spears—are "borderline getting kicked out." Marquez, a 22-year-old charged with stealing a car from a 77-year-old man after putting him in a headlock and demanding the keys, is officially part of the program, meaning he and three others—Melendez, Carmack and Adame—have been approved by Snipes and the District Attorney's Office to have their records potentially expunged. Spears, charged with two felonies for possession of crack and using a headlock to choke a woman, is part of a group of five waiting for their mental health assessments from the VA.

Marquez has no job and no stable residence, bouncing between friends' houses in Grand Prairie, and both he and Spears are having trouble attending meetings and staying away from drugs. They've tested positive for illegal substances on their UAs and have spent time behind bars as a result. "They call it jail therapy," Snipes says.

The judge is far more optimistic about Melendez.

"We think he's gonna make it," he says.

Two other veterans attend Snipes' weekly meetings—William Smith and Charles Clemons—but Snipes says Smith didn't qualify for the program, and even though Clemons claims that he was told he'd be the first to enter the program when he and Melendez attended the first meeting together in May, Snipes says the allegations against him are "too serious."

Clemons, a 64-year-old Vietnam veteran diagnosed with PTSD, has been advised by Snipes not to comment further as his trial is pending for a charge regarding accusations from a 6-year-old that he grabbed her by the arms and "forced her to sit on his lap" while he drove around a South Dallas apartment complex on April 13.

Prosecutor McNeil says Clemons is "a great guy," but he admits to feeling "uneasy" about the nature of the charge against him, which is officially "unlawful restraint with the risk of serious bodily injury." He also indicates that mistakes were made when Clemons was led to believe that he had been accepted into the program.

"We kinda rushed into it and hadn't thought it out yet," McNeil says.

McNeil first met Snipes in the Green Zone of Iraq while serving in the Army in '04, although the encounter was brief. After 22 years with the military, McNeil says it was a "no-brainer" when he received a call from Kevin Brooks, felony trial bureau chief for the District Attorney's Office, and was told, "You're going to be the prosecutor for the veterans court."

There are two types of veterans coming into contact with the criminal justice system, McNeil says: the "knuckleheads" who are legitimate criminals, and others who are feeling stress related to their military service. While McNeil hasn't been diagnosed with PTSD or any service-related mental illness, he admits to having a "meltdown" in a movie theater shortly after he returned from Iraq.

"I just had to get out of there just because it somehow started to creep me out," he says. "Fortunately, I'm beyond that, but I understand how some people might seek solace in alcohol, drugs or violence, and I don't want them to do that. I would rather them get treated and get help, especially since they've earned it."

McNeil describes his role as a screener as opposed to a prosecutor in the veterans court because he's working with instead of against the defense counsel, and he won't prosecute any of the cases that he reviews and doesn't admit into the court. The county doesn't keep track of the cases that haven't been accepted, but he says most are rejected because the veterans either don't have an honorable discharge or their mental illness can't be linked to their military service.

While the law gives him broad discretion when choosing participants, McNeil stresses that Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins' motto is "public safety, public safety, public safety," and he won't let anyone in the program who could potentially pose a danger to society. He's also not concerned about the ability to allow extremely violent offenders into the program.

"I guess if I sat here long enough, I could come up with a circumstance where some horrific crime could be something that we might say, 'OK, we'll take that,' because of the individual circumstances," he says.

Like Snipes, McNeil isn't optimistic about Marquez and Spears, claiming there's "a strong possibility" that Marquez gets kicked out, with Spears "99 percent there."

The last hope for Marquez, Spears or any of the veterans in the program to succeed is the one person McNeil calls when he wants to know how one of the veterans is doing: 71-year-old court mentor and "force of nature," as McNeil calls him, Tom Madrzykowski.

"We'd never encourage a volunteer to incur expenses on behalf of one of our veterans or clients, but he does, and I'll be damned if I can stop him," McNeil says. "If somebody needs a ride or somebody needs 10 bucks or a meal, he's gonna do that. We need somebody with his energy."

Sitting at the end of a long conference table inside the Observer's offices, Madrzykowski leans back, takes a deep breath and pauses. "I'll tell you something I have never ever told anyone about when my service ended," he says.

Unknown to Snipes and even his spouse of nearly 20 years, Madrzykowski says he ended up AWOL in Houston shortly after returning home from a tour of duty in Indochina from 1960 to '61. His troubles began upon his arrival at Fort Riley, Kansas, just outside Junction City, which he describes as a "hot spot for drugs" at the time.

As an Army soldier, Madrzykowski says he began abusing alcohol and various drugs including crystal meth, opiates, "Bennies" (an amphetamine called Benzedrine), hash and marijuana to suppress trauma like watching medics use tongue depressors and toilet paper to mark pieces of dead bodies that had been blown to smithereens. "Most of us weren't prepared. We had no idea what we were getting into."

He met a woman with drugs in Junction City when he came back and hopped on a train with her to Galesburg, Illinois, for Christmas instead of going home, eventually finding himself in Houston. "I'm proud of what I do," he says of volunteering his time as a mentor. "It's a little embarrassing what my past is."

Madrzykowski, a thin, smartly dressed man with a full head of silver hair and round glasses, spent the decade following his decision to bolt the Army roaming about the country. Seven treatment facilities later, spread throughout various states including Arizona, Nebraska and Washington, Madrzykowski finally got sober from drugs and alcohol in the early 1980s, culminating with a trip to a treatment center in Klamath Falls, Oregon.

Madrzykowski says he planned to play golf upon his retirement as a bus driver for Greyhound Lines in 2004, but he met Snipes in 2005 while working on the campaign of Ernie White, who, like Snipes, would win his first term as state district judge the following year in a Democratic sweep at the polls in Dallas County.

"There was something about the way I connected with Mike Snipes that just struck a chord," Madrzykowski says.

So when Snipes took on the veterans court program, Madrzykowski saw himself as a natural fit as a volunteer mentor. "I've been there and I've done that," he says. "I can relate. I hear the same excuses I used 25 and 30 years ago."

One month after the program began in Dallas County, Madrzykowski flew to New York for two days to visit the country's first veterans court in Buffalo. Madrzykowski says his trip was an "involved learning experience," where he met with mentor coordinator Jack O'Connor and realized that problems with the veterans don't always happen between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Combining his personal experience with his training in New York, Madrzykowski quickly established himself as the lifeline to each of the program's participants. When he found out in July that Adame had gone AWOL from the Army National Guard upon his return from Iraq in September 2009, Madrzykowski drove him to Seagoville in an attempt to convince the first sergeant not to discharge him.

"You guys took him, and now you're going to dump him?" he asked the sergeant, eventually persuading him to transfer Adame to Ready Reserve so he could retain his VA benefits.

Madrzykowski has little to say on the record in defense of Adame's charge of assaulting his wife on June 11 in Mesquite. According to the police report, Adame, who is separated and going through a divorce, grabbed his wife and "lifted her off her feet" following an argument and threw her onto the bed, where she landed on the bed railing.

Adame then "placed his hand around her neck and began choking her" while she attempted to call 911 and didn't release her until she lost consciousness and dropped her cell phone. After she bit his stomach and tried to run away, Adame allegedly "kicked her to the floor" and then began kicking her chest and stomach.

Madrzykowski has also been a tireless advocate of keeping Marquez in the program despite three separate trips to jail for testing positive for marijuana. He says Carmack is a changed man since first appearing in court as a heroin addict in handcuffs fresh out of the county jail, thanks to his placement at Dallas LIFE. As Melendez struggles to stay financially afloat in the face of bankruptcy, Madrzykowski introduced him to a real-estate agent friend who is working with Melendez to sell his house in North Dallas.

Despite his best efforts, Madrzykowski knows there will be failures at some point. "My biggest fear is picking up the paper or turning on the TV and seeing that one of my guys has carjacked somebody, went through a stop sign and killed somebody."

Always on the lookout for more mentors, Madrzykowski also lobbied 28-year-old Aaron Dillon to volunteer while the two chatted about the program at Harrisburg International Airport in Pennsylvania. Dillon just so happened to be on his way home to Royse City when they met. He called Madrzykowski one week later to accept his invite.

An Army sergeant who was deployed twice to Iraq—once in 2005 to '06 and again from April '08 to June '09—Dillon experienced high anxiety around family members when he returned home the first time. He was diagnosed with service-related bipolar disorder, though after the same symptoms persisted when he returned after his second deployment, the VA diagnosed him with PTSD.

Dillon says it actually felt more normal to return to Iraq because of the need to always feel "on guard." When he got back the second time, he was excited but also depressed because he had no job or car and had to move in with his parents. "It was hard coming back."

His life has improved quickly, as he's seeking an associate's degree in science at Eastfield College and met his fiancee, a Navy intelligence officer, in May. And Madrzykowski has charged him with turning around the program's most troubled member: Marquez, who Dillon calls the court's "poster boy" and says "popped hot today on another UA."

Madrzykowski and Dillon agree that Marquez needs to be placed at The Bridge homeless shelter or Dallas LIFE as a last resort. "I think he needs a lot of guidance and a lot of help," Dillon says.

It's another Monday in veterans court and Judge Snipes is unhappy. He wants to know why his model participant, Melendez, was mistakenly arrested the previous week by "goons with hairy knuckles" in front of his neighbors.

(Melendez later tells the Observer that he was walking one of his three dogs early in the morning when someone called his name. Melendez opened his back gate to see who it was and found a Dallas police officer there with his gun drawn. Melendez spent a night in jail before a message was relayed to Snipes, who arranged for his release.)

McNeil tells Snipes that the warrant for Melendez's arrest was never served and mistakenly remained in the county's computer system, which led to his accidental arrest.

As this week's meeting wraps up, Snipes tells Dillon to take Marquez and Spears to The Bridge upon their release from jail after failing drug tests and notes that Melendez is scheduled to graduate "summa cum laude" in less than two months.

Shortly after the adjournment, Marquez appears in front of Snipes in a gray and white Dallas County jail uniform and handcuffs. The judge asks why he had to be segregated from the other inmates, and Marquez claims that he didn't have his medication and felt a "tingling" sensation.

"Making excuses is not the way out of this," Snipes says.

"Roger," replies Marquez, who stands erect.

"This is your last chance to do what I and the officers of my court tell you to do."

"Roger, Your Honor."

"You're going to The Bridge with Sergeant Dillon."

Marquez asks to address the court and the two go back and forth with Marquez attempting to make excuses and Snipes instructing him to "stop talking."

"Can I say one more thing?" pleads Marquez after the exchange.

"No. Stop talking. You're discharged, and you're going to The Bridge."

One week later on September 20, Marquez is back in the court, sitting next to Dillon and wearing a blue button-up shirt and pressed khaki slacks. Snipes is absent because of a speaking engagement, leaving probation officer Mark Jones to run the abbreviated meeting.

"I've heard more about you than anyone else in the last week," Jones says to Marquez, who is the only one to stand when addressed.

Marquez explains that The Bridge was over capacity, so he's staying instead at Dallas LIFE, which is "really nice." At first, he admits to dreading living there but now says, "I gotta do what I gotta do." He's applied for food stamps, has new medication and has his sights set on a security job, although he needs $180 for training.

Despite his significant turnaround, Madrzykowski reminds him: "You know you're hanging from your nails."

"Yes, sir."

After serving in Iraq from August 2008 to August '09, Marquez suffered from nightmares that often replayed the explosion of an IED (improvised explosive device) "like video clips." He lost hearing in his left ear as a result of the IED and was later diagnosed with PTSD. When he came back, Marquez lived with various friends who smoked pot, so he did too, along with drinking alcohol on a regular basis.

"I would drink until I passed out," he says. "That's how I fell asleep."

Marquez claims he was drunk the night he stole the car from the elderly man after his own car had broken down. "It was like when you blink and something happens and then you blink again and you don't remember how you ended up where you're at."

Now that he's reached his low point, Marquez says there's nowhere to go but up, and his long-term goal is using the GI Bill to get his degree in psychology. "Now that I know I can lose everything, I'm back on track."

On October 4, Marquez appears in court with Dillon by his side. Still living at Dallas LIFE, he's pushing Snipes to allow him to move to Arlington with his girlfriend: "I can do better on my own," he says, adding that he has a job lined up through a temporary agency sorting mail for the U.S. Post Office. Snipes tells him to spend another week at Dallas LIFE to prove himself.

"It's not about what I'm doing," Marquez says when asked what makes him believe he can stay away from drugs when he returns to living on his own. "It's what I'm doing inside of me."

Once again, Spears has tested positive on his UA.

"You know what's going to happen," Snipes tells him, as Spears hangs his head and awaits his trip back to jail.

Adame shows up 45 minutes late with his three young children.

"Quit letting them down," Snipes says. "You want to be thrown out of the program and prosecuted?"

Adame says he's receiving training to be a shop foreman, offering few details. After court's adjourned and Madrzykowski is asked what happened to Adame's training at the Army National Guard and where he'd be trained to be a shop foreman, he says, "That's where I'm confused." He expresses that concern to McNeil, who promptly asks, "What was he charged with again?"

As Dallas County continues to iron out these disconnects and refine its program, clearly there's a lot riding on Marquez's ability to stay on track after numerous slips, but the largest burden at the moment is shouldered by Melendez, who admits to dealing meth to scrape up cash after quitting his job as an assistant comptroller in December 2006.

He'd hoped one big sale would get him out of his financial hole, but that never happened. "If I was making any money from it, I wouldn't be near bankruptcy," he says. "It was a nightmare, and to that extent, the arrests were good for me in that they brought me up short and forced me to really come face to face with it. Drugs are not the option."

Like Marquez, Melendez had an interest in security, but a temporary gig at an upcoming convention fell through when he had to admit that he had been charged with a felony. "A lot of companies won't hire you when you have criminal issues," he tells court manager Dave Wakefield, who suggests the website hard2hire.com.

It's another day of mixed results for Snipes and his group of veterans, but for a county in desperate need of jail space and its fair share of service men and women returning home with PTSD and other mental illnesses, the court offers a model—albeit one with flaws—to keep them out of the criminal justice system and on a path to ensure they won't re-offend. If he can stay clean and keep a roof over his head until November 15, Melendez appears likely to become Dallas County's first veterans court graduate. But perhaps more important than what he'll have accomplished in a six-month span is what he does afterward.

"I don't plan on regressing or relapsing or whatever you want to call it," he says. "I'm not going back [to jail]."

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