PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – For the last ten years, the Fifth Judicial District of the Court of Common Pleas has run a program called the Veterans Court.
It is one of the oldest such programs in the country and it’s specifically designed to help veterans navigate the legal issues related to post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, substance abuse and the hardships of returning to civilian life. Today was graduation day for 24 men and women.
You can see the pride in the eyes of friends and family on a special graduation day.
Each veteran has a unique story of how they wound up on the wrong side of the legal system. For 2016 graduate Kelly Ferri, it happened four years ago.
She came back to the states after a combat stint in the U.S. Army. The mother of two got hurt and required surgery. That’s when she got hooked on painkillers. It escalated to heroin. And that lead to homelessness for her and her young daughter.
The Veterans Court graduate from 2016 says she has no idea where she would be without the court’s intervention.
“The structure, the rehabilitation of the court literally saved my life,” she said.
“I got connected to VLP (the Veterans Leadership Project,) Judge Zottola, they never gave up on me.”
Judge John A. Zottola is the Supervising Judge of the Veterans Court.
“They go from the depths of their situation to the heights of graduating, and as I said, reuniting with their families, reuniting in the community. And that’s the most satisfaction that I get sitting up here (on the bench.)”
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala has been involved in the system since the inception in 2009 — even though his office is the one that brings charges against wrong-doers.
He says thanks to the Veterans Court, it is unlikely he will have to worry about filing charges against the graduates again.
“These guys will not be back in the system,” he said.
“The recidivism rate is about four percent. Now if you do not go through these dockets and you have the same kind of issues, you probably will re-offend 66 percent of the time.”
Kenny Williams is one of the graduates in the Class of 2019. He spoke on behalf of the class after their graduation.
Williams says it took him a while, but he came to the realization that “I can’t do it by myself. I realize that. I recognize that. I appreciate that. I’m okay with that.”
After a couple of stints in jail, it was the Veterans Court that helped Williams turn his life around as well.
Former Pittsburgh Steeler and four-time Super Bowl champion Rocky Bleier was one of the speakers at graduation.
Bleier also was injured while serving in Vietnam. He earned a Purple Star and a Bronze Star for his service.
He says Williams’ comments hit the nail on the head.
He told the graduates, “I want to congratulate you for a job well done and for putting in the time and effort and being an example of what this court is all about.”