Presiding judge served in Vietnam
EDWARDSVILLE - As a combat veteran of Vietnam and in the criminal courts, Madison County Circuit Judge Charles Romani Jr. has seen the connection between military service and the need for mental health and substance abuse services when the veterans return home.
Romani was a sergeant in the U.S. Army, serving near the Demilitarized Zone in South Vietnam.
Chief 3rd Circuit Judge Ann Callis recently appointed Romani as presiding judge over the new Madison County Veterans' Court.
"One of our fire bases was the farthest north of any post in South Vietnam. You could see the North Vietnamese flag from there," Romani said.
He said he served as a radio technician at several fire bases near the DMZ and saw teenagers, drafted into the Army, who had their first experiences with drugs and alcohol while serving in stressful combat situations.
As a judge, he has seen many veterans whose mental health and substance abuse problems contributed to their entanglements with the justice system. The drug or alcohol problems may be a result of the memories of their combat experiences, he said.
"Being a Vietnam veteran, I have always been concerned with the problems that veterans face when returning home," Romani said. "The court system needs to provide treatment for mental and/or substance abuse issues for those veterans who need it and are involved in the criminal justice system.
"The men and women who have served our country deserve an opportunity to get their lives in order," Romani said.
Callis said all the key officials of the new court are military veterans who have volunteered to head up various aspects of the court.
"Our court is unique in that it is staffed by veterans who served in virtually every branch of the United States Armed Forces - those who have served our country honorably and have a distinct understanding of veterans' issues," Callis said.
"Ours is the first in the state and, I believe, the third in the country," Callis said, noting that she learned of such programs at a judicial seminar.
She said participation in Veterans' Court will work similarly to Drug Court, in which people accused of crimes can enter the program voluntarily and receive treatment, instead of a possible criminal conviction.
"We are going to see if we can divert some of these people from the legal system," Romani said.
The probation officer spearheading the monitoring function of the court will be Brian Hodge, an active member of the U.S. Air Force Reserves, who serves as a flight commander at Scott Air Force Base. He is a veteran of Operation Desert Storm.
"I am confident than many of our struggling veterans would be well-served by a mentor from our community who may relate to what they are going through and can provide the support that only a fellow veteran or serviceman can offer," Hodge said.
Mental Health Probation Officer Dennis Baker, who served in the Army Medical Corps, also will participate. The prosecutor assigned to the court will be Michael Stewart, a former Marine Corps corporal. Tyler Bateman, the public defender, is a former Navy lieutenant.
Dr. Jeremy Jewell of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville will assist by attempting to bring in grant money and will provide a screening tool for probation.
Callis said the organization TASC, which provides evaluation and testing for the courts, will provide evaluations, free of charge, to the Veterans' Court.
"The court will only accept nonviolent offenders. It will require no additional funding and will be assisted by volunteer lawyers from the Madison County Bar Association," Callis said.