A Vietnam veteran accused of forcing a 6-year-old girl into his car to ride on his lap became the first to sign on for Dallas County's new veterans court program on Tuesday, with a chance to avoid having a conviction on his record if he completes a six-month treatment program.
Charles Clemons, 63, who was injured three times during the Tet Offensive on a tour with the Army, is one of just a few defendants picked by Dallas County District Judge Mike Snipes and probation officers for the "divert court" program we told you about last month.
Under the program, which is already running in Harris and Tarrant Counties, veterans with service-related mental health issues -- such as post-traumatic stress disorder or brain trauma -- get counseling or drug abuse treatment through the Department of Veterans Affairs, as long as they're eligible for VA benefits.
"That's not some kind of Get Out of Jail Free card, you understand that?" Snipes told Clemons this morning, along with the second man to enter the program, 59-year-old Carlos Melendez, another Vietnam veteran who served with the Air Force charged with drug possession and manufacturing.
Melendez and Clemons each also met with Tom Madrzykowski, a Democratic campaign consultant who's worked with Snipes and Dallas County Judge Jim Foster, and who'd be mentoring the two veterans through treatment.
"I'm a recovering drug addict, and I've been clean for almost 30 years now. I came back from 'Nam with a pretty bad habit, and I've been around the block a time or two," Madrzykowski told Unfair Park. "It's important that they know that people are out here that have had bad habits and have gotten clean and been able to turn things around. I'm a classic example."
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This morning's group was smaller than Snipes and probation officers had anticipated. While veterans were hand-picked for the program based on their background, and only in cases where a judge is likely to give probation anyway, Dallas County Probation Manager Dave Wakefield said the District Attorney's office had rejected some of the original candidates assembled for the program.
Lathisa Gaten has already been coordinating veterans court cases out of Fort Worth for the regional V.A. office, and said the smaller number would be just fine. "Tarrant County's been taking it slow, and that's been working out alright," Gaten said.
"This is one of the V.A.'s new national initiatives," Gaten said, to open specialty veterans courts based on a two-year-old model from Buffalo, N.Y. A law enacted during the last Texas Legislature allowed for similar courts across the state, to place veterans into federally funded treatment programs. "A lot of veterans don't use the V.A. They miss out."
Wakefield said his office already had a few more candidates lined up for the program, and Snipes plans to continue holding the special court docket each Monday morning. "I don't want this court to be a haven for malingerers. This court is supposed to be a haven for people that served with valor that made a mistake," Snipes told us afterward.