Lack of state funds threaten to discontinue Big Island Veterans Treatment Court

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Editor’s note: This is part one in a two-part series looking at Big Island Veterans Treatment Court, its successes and financial uncertainty. One graduate talks about his journey from addiction and PTSD to a sober, healthy life. Part two Monday will detail one man’s graduation from the program.

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Editor’s note: This is part one in a two-part series looking at Big Island Veterans Treatment Court, its successes and financial uncertainty. One graduate talks about his journey from addiction and PTSD to a sober, healthy life. Part two Monday will detail one man’s graduation from the program.

KEALAKEKUA —Vietnam U.S. Army veteran Eddie Schoeppner struggled 40 years with addiction.

The 65-year-old man was well-known in the judicial system and spent time in prison. It wasn’t until he started attending the Big Island Veterans Treatment Court that he was able to get his life back on track.

“As long as I keep going to meetings and court I’m OK,” Schoeppner said as he sat surrounded by fellow veterans in the program at the Kealakekua courthouse. “I’ve got to be on top of changing my behavior.”

After a weekly court hearing this month, the veteran recalled his first day in the program several months ago. “Ibarra said, ‘turn around, brah.’”

Behind him stood veterans also attending the court and mentors who were also veterans. Judge Ronald Ibarra told Schoeppner the people behind him cared and wanted him to succeed.

Now, Schoeppner is set to graduate from the program in the summer.

While there are special drug courts for adults and juveniles, part of what sets veterans court apart is the camaraderie naturally developed between the participants and mentors because of the common bond they share of serving the nation as well as its approach to treat the specific needs of veterans.

“These veterans, they were willing to give their lives for their country,” said Ibarra, the veterans court judge. “When they left, they left a life different to what they returned to. It’s about time the country addressed that.”

The Big Island Veterans Treatment Court is now facing an unknown future as funding to continue the program has not yet been determined.

The program started in 2014 with a federal grant of $310,000. That money ends Sept. 30 and those who run the program are currently looking to the Legislature to keep the court running for Hawaii Island’s veterans.

The veterans are keenly aware of the financial situation the court faces.

“The court is doing great now but what about the other vets after us?” Schoeppner asked.

Grayson Hashida, Drug Court Coordinator, said they are looking for the state to fund three full-time positions: a supervisor, a Kona probation officer and a Hilo probation officer. Those monies would also the cover the costs of drug testing and evaluating the program.

It would cost about $255,000 per year.

“What’s the old way — incarceration? That has proven ineffective,” Ibarra said.

Rep. Joy A. San Buenaventura, representative for the Puna District, works on the judiciary committee. She said the funding needs of the veterans treatment court is on the Legislature’s radar, however the committee doesn’t know if there is money to support it.

“We know that it is needed and we know it’s successful,” San Buenaventura said. “However, there are so many needs in this state right now.”

Right now, the judiciary committee is looking at all programs asking for funding and seeing what needs “float to the top.”

“We’re hoping that the Trump administration will continue to fund veteran programs,” San Buenaventura said.

Kealii Emmett, 30, served in the Army in 2006. Also suffering from addiction, Emmett found himself in the veterans treatment court.

During a court appearance on March 20, he told Judge Melvin Fujino he’d been clean for five months and 11 days.

Emmett said he had a bit of a rough start but feels different than he did before he started.

“It’s the longest I’ve been clean,” Emmett said. “It’s the peer support like Uncle Sam and Uncle Eddie.”

If the program ended, Emmett said, he didn’t think veterans would get the help they needed.

Ibarra said to receive treatment through the Veterans Affairs Clinic there are several guidelines that must be met by a veteran. However, for veterans treatment court the only requirement is that they served, even if it was for a day.

Hashida said the court takes any veteran that has a substance abuse problem, health problem or traumatic brain injury.

“We’re trying to get the veterans the help they need while they’re on probation,” he said.

Ibarra said the court offers intensive supervision and a holistic approach.

The program is challenging in that it wants the participants to lead a law-abiding life: paying taxes, holding a job, reuniting with family.

It’s learning the principles so they become a lifestyle.

“If it still feels like a burden, you’re not ready to leave,” Ibarra said of the principles in the program.

Grayson said a significant number of veterans, when they come to the program, are homeless or have poor housing options. The veterans court helps them with housing.

Ibarra added the court helps participants with welfare if they need it and also helps them get the treatment they need.

Veterans court has mentors who have also served.

“These mentors go the extra mile without getting paid,” Ibarra said. “They do it because they support their fellow veteran.”

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It’s a good program. It’s not perfect, Ibarra said, but the tools they take away from it help veterans in the long run.

“If they fall off the wagon they know how to come back,” the judge said.

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