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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on December 6th, 2012, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 13, Issue 39 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 39

Second chances

The Santa Maria Veterans Treatment Court helps troubled service men and women start fresh

BY AMY ASMAN

If everything goes according to plan, Howard Hill, a former sailor with the U.S. Navy, is going to be one of the next graduates of the Santa Maria Veterans Treatment Court.

Hill joined the Navy in 1995 in lieu of going to prison. He served his country for 13 years until being discharged in 2008. He doesn’t like to talk about why he was discharged.


A changed man:
Howard Hill, a former aviation boatswain’s mate with the U.S. Navy (pictured here with his wife Christine), is one of the first participants of the Santa Maria Veterans Treatment Court.
PHOTO COURTESY OF HOWARD HILL

“It came down to being asked if I wanted to stay in [the Navy] or get out,” he said in a recent interview with the Sun. “I made the wrong choice.”

Once back in the civilian lifestyle, Hill continued to make bad choices. Reeling from the deaths of his father and two of his military friends, Hill suffered from anxiety and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He started doing drugs to cope.

“[The drugs] made it easier for me to forget and to not feel anything,” he said. “Instead of getting the services I needed, I did drugs.”

Hill hit rock bottom in 2010 when he was convicted of a misdemeanor and the Santa Barbara County Department of Child Welfare Services threatened to take away his children.

“In the regular court system, it seemed like at every court date I was getting thrown into jail,” Hill said.

Things started to change in August 2011 when he decided to get clean and sober.

“The main reason I decided to quit drugs was because I was going to lose all of my kids,” he said. “I decided enough was enough. My cousin had just died and another of my close family members went to prison.”

Three months later, Hill entered the Veterans Treatment Court pilot program.

Presided over by Santa Barbara County Judge Rogelio Flores, Veterans Treatment Court is a phased program that includes mental health care, substance abuse treatment, self-help meetings, and regular court-review hearings. The program comes in response to the increasing number of veterans in the court system brought in to face charges related to substance abuse, mental illness, and trauma.


Veterans helping veterans
The Santa Barbara County Probation Department is looking for veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces to serve as mentors to men and women going through Santa Maria Veterans Treatment Court. Deputy chief probation officer Tanja Heitman said having someone who can understand the stresses of military service is very beneficial. For more information about volunteering, call North County probation manager Heather Bennett at 739-8635.

Participants are expected to take responsibility for their actions; they must stay clean and sober while completing rigorous, individualized treatment. There are some exceptions, however, for recovering addicts who fall off the wagon. Instead of getting kicked out, they’re routed into a more intensive rehabilitative program.

The court gives men and women who served their country second—or even third or fourth—chances.

Deputy chief probation officer Tanja Heitman said the program is designed to allow any vet to receive services, regardless of his or her discharge status.

“That was one of the foundational pieces of our program. The military has its own criteria,” Heitman said. “We didn’t want to get into whether or not we agree with that ... so we created a blanket term that says, ‘If you served in the military, you get treatment.’”

Some of the services provided are limited, such as housing and health benefits from Veterans Affairs, but the goal of rehabilitation is still the same. Heitman said the program strengthens not only the resiliency of the soldiers, but also their families and the community at large.

Former sailor Hill said he’s approximately three months shy of graduating. He’s participated in anger management classes, parenting classes, and therapy, and he attends daily Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

Both Hill and his wife, Christine, said the treatment court—and Judge Flores—has had a profound impact on their lives.

 “If it wasn’t for the Judge Flores side [of the court], I don’t know where my case would be right now,” Hill said. “Staying drug and alcohol free is more of a blessing that anything else. I get to experience things in ways I never did before.”

Added Christine, “He needed the extra guidance, the extra push of Judge Flores’ court to help him snap out of it.”

Contact Managing Editor Amy Asman at aasman@santamariasun.com.