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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on May 27th, 2015, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 16, Issue 12 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 16, Issue 12

Second chances: Veterans services in Santa Maria help those who've served adjust to life outside the military

By DAVID MINSKY

On the afternoon of Friday, May 22, Department 7 of the Santa Maria courthouse was packed with people. Most of them were U.S. veterans and their friends and family. Everyone stood and faced the U.S. flag. With hands over their hearts, the crowd recited the Pledge of Allegiance in unison. The court was officially in session.

Presiding Judge Rogelio Flores called out the names of veterans one by one. He was stern with some and joked with others. Murmurs from several conversations emanated from the back of the court. It’s not your typical criminal court; the mood was very informal.


A SECOND CHANCE
Desi Bryant embraces Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Rogelio Flores during Veterans Treatment Court.
PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI

That day, Santa Maria resident and Air Force veteran Desi Bryant stood before the judge, who congratulated Bryant for graduating to the next phase of Veterans Treatment Court. The two embraced and the crowd erupted in applause. 

Bryant served in the Air Force from 1997 to 2002, working as an electronic technician. Recently, he got into legal trouble. But instead of going to jail, he was diverted to the vets court where he continues to make strides.

Most vets who come home uninjured are able to smoothly transition into civilian society, but there are also those who can’t for one reason or another. Many lack an identifiable mental trauma or physical injury, so it’s often difficult to explain why. That hardship can deposit them on the brink of losing it all. 

According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, 1.4 million veterans are considered at risk of homelessness due to factors such as poverty and a lack of support networks. 

Being a Navy veteran myself, I understand what it’s like to re-enter civilian life after leaving the military. The time I’ve served is a part of my life that I’d sometimes rather leave behind, although it’s hard to forget because of the incredible stories I have to tell and how big a part of me it actually is. For this story, I came across many veterans in Santa Maria who feel the same way. I sought them out to hear their stories and listen to what they had to say about the process of finding themselves in life after the service.

 

Family tradition

Nick Presher enlisted in the Navy in 1980 and was assigned to the USS Atlanta, a submarine based out of Norfolk, Va. With three brothers who served in Vietnam and a father who served in the Korean War, he decided to serve his part in a long running family tradition.  

On the Atlanta, Presher worked as a mess specialist (now called a culinary specialist), which is essentially a cook. Aside from the sonar technicians, who provide the eyes and the ears of the submarine while underwater, his job was among the most important on the boat.


VETS HELPING VETS
Veronica West heads the newly founded Veteran Success Center at Allan Hancock College. In addition to being a state-licensed family therapist, West is a Marine Corps veteran.
PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI

“It really is,” Presher said. “Food is a big part of morale on a submarine.”

The life of a submariner is inherently secretive. While conducting missions, a submarine’s primary mission is stealth. When submerged, they are virtually undetectable. 

Presher couldn’t really talk about of some of the missions he experienced, but he did give some details. In 1982, he and his crew sat underwater off the coast of the Falkland Islands for three weeks listening for marine traffic while British and Argentinean troops engaged in warfare on the surface.

In 1983, the Atlanta participated in the invasion of Grenada. It wasn’t long after this that Presher began experiencing problems.

Presher is openly gay. Back then—before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and its subsequent repeal—being gay was enough to get you kicked out of the military. The Atlanta was submerged somewhere off the coast of Scotland in 1983 when Presher’s captain received word about his sexual orientation. 

According to Presher: Within six hours, he was kicked off the boat. After surfacing, he was picked up by an American ship and brought back to Kyle of Lochalsh, a small village on Scotland’s western shore. He was then driven to a U.S. Navy submarine base in Holy Loch, near Glasgow, where he waited to be administratively separated from the Navy. 

He received temporary duty in a small unit of other sailors—typically those who failed drug tests—who were also waiting to get discharged. He was busted down to the rank of E1, received a general discharge, and was not allowed to re-enlist. 

For Presher, the experience was traumatic. 

“I was so shocked because I got off the ship so quickly,” Presher said. “It was a whirlwind.” 


THE JUDGE
In his 28 years of being a judge, Rogelio Flores said overseeing the vets court is the best work he’s ever done.
PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI

He felt alone. There was no way to tell his family what happened. In 1983, there was no Internet, no cell phones, and international phone calls from the base were expensive. But growing up in a Mormon family from San Diego, Presher knew his parents wouldn’t approve of him being gay, and they didn’t. He lived with his parents for a few months until he found a solid job. 

“They didn’t want anything to do with me,” Presher said. 

His parents wanted him to undergo gay conversion therapy. Feeling ostracized, he eventually moved away and lived a solitary life. Decades later, his life began to change. 

 

A path to success

The stigma of being openly gay in the military was removed in 2011, shortly after President Barack Obama signed the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010. 

Later that year, Presher met a man by the name of John Crowl, who was a social worker and tai chi instructor in Santa Maria. Presher said Crowl convinced him to get his discharge overturned.

It took several tries, but in June of 2012, Presher received a letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs that his benefits were reinstated, and he was eligible to get 10 percent disability for a foot injury he received while in the service. 

He enrolled at Allan Hancock College to study viticulture, where he met leadership instructor Dr. Henry Davis, who served with the Air Force during the Vietnam War. At the time, Davis and a few other vets were forming a group that’s now known as the Allan Hancock chapter of the Student Veterans of America and asked Presher to join.

Within a matter of semesters, Presher went from being the group’s treasurer to its president, a position he currently holds. 


MAKING STRIDES
Raul Ramirez is currently advancing through the Santa Maria Veterans Treatment Court. Ramirez served in the U.S. Army from 2004 to 2012 and deployed three times. He recently attended court with this service dog, Leo.
PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI

Presher is one of many vets continuing their education at Hancock. With more and more vets returning to college, the staff at Hancock converted an old faculty space and dedicated it to vets. It’s the Veteran Success Center, which held its soft opening on May 20. 

“We always had a dream to put something like this together,” Davis said. “It’s a place to sit down and talk to other vets. It’s vets helping vets.”

Davis worked with the college president, Kevin Walthers, to get the center established. The college hired Veronica West—a licensed family therapist and Marine Corps vet—to run the new center. Academically, the new space provides a wealth of resources, including assistance on how to receive financial aid benefits. More practically, it’s a sanctuary for vets. It’s not uncommon to find someone sleeping on the couch in between classes. 

In addition to the new center, the college holds a veterans academy that helps with job placement. 

Now 53 years old and happily married, Presher lives in Oceano and runs a successful catering company called 365 Events Central Coast Catering. 

It’s hard for Presher to forget about the past, but he sees that things are improving. He encourages more vets to seek out the services that are there for them.

“There is a part of me that definitely still holds bad feelings about what happened to me,” Presher said. “But I see that they are changing, or at least trying, considering Vietnam vets and how badly they were treated.”

Camaraderie lost

Steven Baird served with the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines based out of Camp Pendleton and was honorably discharged in 1998 following several tours of duty, including a sensitive mission to Indonesia.

He experienced a few gun battles, although it was never in the capacity of an officially declared war. 

“They were not as heavy or brutal,” Baird said, “but a gunfight’s a gunfight, whether it lasts for 30 seconds or three days.”


HEAL YOURSELF COMMUNITY
Judge Flores said the Veterans Treatment Court conveys a sense of esprit de corps within which vets can find the same support they had while serving in the military.
PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI

In the military, Baird was at home. He was in great shape, he loved the training, and most of all, he loved the camaraderie.

Making rank as a sergeant (E5), Baird was put in a position of leadership. When he left the Marines, Baird felt as if he’d left his troops behind. In 2000, he experienced a bit of survivor’s guilt after learning an old Corps buddy of his died in a V-22 Osprey crash in Arizona. This would haunt him later in life. 

Following his time in the Corps, his life was initially successful. He worked at a post office in Montana and later with the Department of Homeland Security, where he worked alongside other vets. But it wasn’t the same, Baird said.

By this time, he’d also finished with a divorce. He moved back to California and found a three-figure job working for a large utility company, but quit amid an upheaval with his superiors. 

Baird then provided security in New York following the devastation left by Hurricane Sandy in 2010. There, he had his first encounter with law enforcement. He couldn’t go into detail about what happened, but the case has since been expunged from his record. 

He moved back to Santa Maria—where he grew up—and soon, his life took a turn for the worst. He fell in hard with alcohol and almost became homeless. His legal troubles compounded. He was depressed. Following an incident in Orcutt, Baird was arrested and landed in a new type of treatment court specifically designed for veterans like him. 

 

A second chance

Every day, Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Flores wears the dog tags of his wife’s cousin, Kenneth Alvarez, who was only 23 years old when he was killed by an improvised explosive device while serving a tour in Afghanistan. 

But his ties to vets go deeper. His two older brothers served in the Vietnam War and returned home with the emotional scars that war left on many of the veterans who served tours in it. 

As a judge, Flores saw more and more veterans with service-related mental illnesses enter the judicial system. That and his personal experiences led him to believe that vets are a special class of people and should be treated as such. 

In 2011, Flores helped launch the Veterans Treatment Court (VTC) in Santa Barbara County. Modeled after drug courts, it takes vets from criminal proceedings and diverts them into a 12-month program that helps keep them out of jail or prison. 


DEDICATED TO THE VETS
A Marine Corps memorial signifies the opening of the new Veteran Success Center at Allan Hancock College. The center provides a multitude of services to all U.S. military student veterans at Hancock.
PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI

The court is a joint effort of the county’s court and probation systems; the District Attorney’s Office; and Alcohol, Drug, and Mental Health Services (ADMHS). The first VTC was established in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008. According to the nonprofit Justice For Vets, 220 such courts existed in the United States as of June 30, 2014. 

Cases entering the court run the gamut of offenses, usually DUIs and drug offenses. The court doesn’t accept violent offenders, although those charged with domestic battery charges are accepted on a case-by-case basis, Flores said. 

To qualify, a candidate must plead guilty, and court officials decide whether or not to accept him or her into the program. Once in, the candidate’s assigned a public defender (if they decide to not pay for their own attorney), and they work with the judge and court officials in a series of phases. 

Although it’s a small percentage, Flores acknowledged that some veterans don’t make it through the program. Some drop out, but they can be allowed back in.

“There’s no free lunch here,” Flores said, adding that the candidates must stay out of trouble and are subject to drug and alcohol testing. 

To help them get through the program, candidates are given the option to have a mentor. Cary Gray, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, is one of a handful of volunteers who work as mentors for veterans in the court. Even though he’s no longer in the military, Gray feels his job is to help vets get a second chance.

“I was an Air Force person, so I feel as if I’m still on duty,” Gray said. “This is my higher calling.”

According to Gray, the program is highly successful. As of May 8, 131 veterans (both men and women) had enrolled in the program; 58 have graduated, and there are still 49 active members. 

Baird, who entered the program in February 2013 and successfully graduated in April 2014, is one of the program’s success stories. He now works as a mentor to help other vets in the system. 

“The credo of the vets court is that they will do 90 percent of the work for you with the expectation that by the end you will be doing 100 percent of the work,” Baird said. “The best part of my service is what I’m doing with it now.”

Baird is now working full time with a company conducting research and investigations. 

Flores calls the court a “heal yourself community.” In the court, he said, vets get to experience the esprit de corps they once had while serving: Everyone backs each other up. Overseeing the vets court is highly rewarding for Flores, who not only considers Baird a leader in the community, but also a friend. 

“As a judge, it’s the best work I’ve done in 28 years,” Flores said.

Contact Staff Writer David Minsky at dminsky@santamariasun.com




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