Butler County is using these new services to help its estimated 26,000 veterans

Butler County continues to add new programs to support its estimated 26,000 veterans with services ranging from transportation to specialized attention in court cases.

In recent years, the Butler County Veterans Service Commission has emerged from a period of dysfunction to serve enough vets that it’s adding a new position to handle the volume. The area will soon also add a fourth Veterans Treatment Court docket that focuses on the issues and needs of defendants who have served.

Area III Court Judge Dan Haughey said his new veterans court docket that serves all the area courts should be starting within three to four months. That would add to such courts in the Common Pleas Court and the municipal courts in Hamilton and Middletown.

Haughey said one of the challenges is identifying which defendants are veterans so they can be filtered to courts built to focus on them.

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“They’re in some sense too ashamed to acknowledge they’ve previously served their county because now they find themselves in a bad way, perhaps charged with some type of a criminal offense,” Haughey said.

“So they don’t want to bring what they perceive to be dishonor upon their service or their branch of the military or their country. We want to make sure that veterans don’t feel that stigma. No, we’re here to help.”

He said they have had discussions with Jen Wolfe at the Veterans Administration about getting the court set up. Wolfe is on the treatment team in Common Pleas Court Judge Michael Oster’s veterans court .

“Our role as a treatment team is to wrap these veterans in bubble wrap,” Wolfe told the Journal-News previously. “We wrap all these services around them because they’re fragile. They have mental health disorders, they have substance abuse disorders, so you wrap all these services around them and you stay with them long enough to then let them get back out on their own.”

Oster is graduating another four veterans from his docket May 28. He started the specialized docket in 2017, and three veterans have graduated the program.

Assignment to the specialty court as part of probation is made by the sentencing judge in the felony division who had the veteran’s case originally. The veterans court is designed to break down barriers such as unemployment or under employment, homelessness, drug problems and other issues that may have contributed to veterans ending up on the wrong side of the law.

Oster said he had one vet drop out of the program, but that person probably should not have been in it in the first place.

“The thing that I take from that is the veterans who have been in the program and been willing to work we’ve had success with,” Oster said. “So that’s the good thing is, if they’re willing to put the work in and buy into the program we’ve really been able to have great success.”

Middletown Municipal Court Judge James Sherron said in the last year he graduated four veterans, none of the vets have been removed from the program and there have been no repeat offenders. He said the court can provide a variety of services to help veterans.

“We got a grant last year for $7,000 specifically for transportation issues,” he said. “We were using it for things as broad as helping some of the veterans pay their reimbursement fees to the BMV so they could get their license back. Who would think that’s a service that any court can provide?”

Roger Caldwell, who graduated Oster’s docket last November, said the program helped him with benefits he never knew were available, education and job training.

“I was on a road that I was making some bad decisions in my life, and I wasn’t really living up to my potential,” Caldwell said. “Through this program I got a new lease. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, sometimes pride can get in the way.”

The Butler County Veterans Service Commission is also charged with helping all of the estimated 26,000 veterans in the county.

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Commissioner Bruce Jones said last week that officials are working with Matt Dutkevicz, executive director of the Butler County Regional Transit Authority, on a program to help veterans get to work. One option they discussed was BCRTA discounting half the $40 monthly bus ticket, and the vet board would subsidize the rest.

“I personally feel that it’s something we should offer. It’s not going to cost the taxpayers a ton of money to do something like this,” he said. “If it eliminates one person coming in and sitting here needing us to give them $2,000 and $3,000 a month or a year or whatever, I think it’s worth the $20 myself.”

As an arm of county government, the board is not affiliated with the Veterans Administration, and it offers many services like doling out emergency cash, helping veterans navigate the Veterans Administration system, arranging and paying for transportation to medical appointments, and finding local services for everything from legal issues to marriage counseling.

Before Executive Director Caroline Bier arrived five years ago, the board was scolded numerous times by the county prosecutor for its lack of activity. Last year the agency served 1,194 more veterans than in 2014, and it has added a new service officer next year.

“I’ve said it before, one of our goals should be to get enough traffic through the door that we are forced to hire another service officer,” Vet Board President Chuck Weber said.

Bier credits the board’s advertising efforts for much of the increase. The majority of the former board members fought spending money on that form of outreach, but as new commissioners took over they embraced the effort and expect to spend about $180,000 on radio and newspaper ads next year.

Oster said helping veterans is the most important thing Butler County courts can do. At the graduation ceremony last fall he told the crowd of supporters that “real heroes don’t wear capes, they wear camo.”

“The brave men and women who have served our country, protected our lives, our freedoms, the ideals we have as Americans, should never get to a point in any way where they don’t feel that they are a veteran, they should never feel like they have lost a sense of honor or pride or who they are for that service,” Oster said.

“No matter what else gets achieved in this Veterans Treatment Court my personal goal, as long as I oversee this court, will always be to give back our veterans every ounce of pride and honor they have earned serving our country.”

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