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Thursday, July 30, 2009 - 10:23am

Georgia Has First Veterans Court in the Southeast

Georgia is home to 700,000 veterans and 12 military installations.

Most of the time soldiers returning from war readjust to civilian life, but others get into trouble. But, there's hope that a new court in Middle Georgia will result in more rehabilitating and less incarcerating.

Joshua Kelly was serving his fourth tour of duty in Iraq. The Columbus native and Sergeant was on a convoy mission when he was attacked.

"We got ambushed. We took sniper fire rifle, which I was hit and two other of my soldiers was killed. It's kind of like a blurry vision, but all I remember is just waking up and thinking I was still in combat."

When he woke up he was in a hospital surrounded by family. The attack left him with a traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder. He is on full disability.

"I ended up going through a divorce, couldn't be around my oldest daughter because of the way I was acting mentally. I had anger outbursts. It was a life that I never expected."

Kelly also began abusing alcohol and got into trouble with the law, and he's not alone. Many of the men and women returning from military service end up in the court system. Statistics show veterans have higher rates of domestic abuse, substance abuse and suicide.

The high numbers did not go unnoticed by Superior Court Judge William Fears who is with the Towaliga Judicial District in Forsyth.

"We saw individuals coming through and you tend to notice higher rates of domestic abuse. There would be legal problems such as DUI's, drug charges, things of that nature."

Fears, along with the local district attorney, public defender, counselors and volunteers responded by creating the very first veterans court in the southeast at his courthouse in Forsyth.

The veterans court will run like other specialized courts in Georgia, including drug and mental health courts according to District Attorney Richard Milam.

"There are other ways to resolve issues that are being explored now other than the typical, lock 'em up."

The courts plan to focus on treatment as well as hooking soldiers up with state and federal resources. Veterans who choose to enter the system will also get counseling.

Judge Fears says that should keep the jailhouse from having a revolving door.

"They stay in jail a few days just long enough to get the chemicals out of their system. Then they're released on bond back on the street, but they haven't had any treatment and guidance, any counseling. Well naturally they go back to the same people, the same places and do the same things and the police are out there arresting them again."

And with Georgia soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, District Attorney Milam, who will have to prosecute the veterans, says the timing couldn't be better.

"We'll be able to identify those people and deal with them in a way that's appropriate because you always have to remember that these folks have gotten into some sort of a mess because of their service to their country."

The first hearing in the veterans court is set for August 28. If successful there are plans to replicate the specialized court all across the state.

Meanwhile Joshua Kelly is getting help from the community in Forsyth putting his life back together.

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