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‘Start of my new beginning': Veterans court provides opportunity for fresh start for struggling vets

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Al Palmer, Salt Lake County Veterans Treatment Court mentor coordinator, hugs Air Force veteran Elizabeth Torres as she graduates.

Al Palmer, Salt Lake County Veterans Treatment Court mentor coordinator, hugs Air Force veteran Elizabeth Torres as she graduates from veterans court at the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022. Four veterans on Thursday celebrated new beginnings when they graduated from the program after overcoming post-service challenges.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Amber Anderton never expected to wind up in legal trouble.

From 2003 to 2007, Anderton served as a data analyst for the U.S. Air Force while also holding a political science degree from the University of Utah.

She even had aspirations to further her education.

"I never thought I would ever be in trouble with the law. I was a political science major, I wanted to go on to law school," Anderton said.

However, life rarely follows a straight path, as Anderton and three other veterans who on Thursday graduated from Utah Veterans Court at the 3rd District Courthouse in Salt Lake City can attest.

Veterans court is a problem-solving court — similar to drug court or mental health court — but specific to veterans. Participants often have criminal charges stemming from an untreated substance use disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder or other combat-related mental illness.

Veterans court gives them the opportunity to resolve their criminal charges through pleas in abeyance or charge reductions by committing to treatment and working with mentors, some of whom have been through the program themselves.

"I think about the trajectory their lives are now on because it's an entirely different trajectory than when they first came into this court. I'm so impressed with each and every one of them," 3rd District Judge Adam Mow said.

The program made all the difference for Anderton, though she didn't initially realize it.

Air Force veteran and Veteran’s Court graduate Amber Anderton speaks during a Veteran’s Court graduation ceremony at the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City on Thursday. Four veterans on Thursday celebrated new beginnings when they graduated from the Utah Veterans Court program after overcoming post-service challenges.

Air Force veteran and veteran’s court graduate Amber Anderton speaks during a veteran’s court graduation ceremony at the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022. Four veterans on Thursday celebrated new beginnings when they graduated from the Utah Veterans Court program after overcoming post-service challenges.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

"When I first got out of jail, I was thinking I would have no support, no network ... I literally had nothing. I had a house fire and I lost everything," Anderton said. "I felt like (I was) coming into something that was going to be more of a punishment, (it) turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I feel like I got a family out of this."

For other graduates like Carl Costello, completing the program is like "starting a new beginning."

Costello served in the U.S. Navy as a hull maintenance technician from 1985 to 1989. After serving, he battled addiction and homelessness before coming into the program.

"I can remember being very defeated and broken down, like, the worst of my addiction," Costello said. "I was homeless, jobless and at probably one of my lowest lows."

He said that he'd tried recovery a number of times on his own and was considering the option of collecting disability checks before joining veterans court.

"The voices in my head were so bad and I couldn't work," Costello said.

It seemed hopeless for a while.

Al Palmer, Salt Lake County Veterans Treatment Court mentor coordinator, shakes hands with Navy veteran Carl Costello during a Veteran’s Court graduation ceremony at the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City on Thursday.

Al Palmer, Salt Lake County Veterans Treatment Court mentor coordinator, shakes hands with Navy veteran Carl Costello during a veteran’s court graduation ceremony at the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

"That guy seemed to be long gone, I knew there was a thought of this guy who achieved highly in everything he did and I just thought maybe he was gone now and I had to accept that," Costello said.

He didn't accept it, though, and through his own willpower, the help and guidance of some devoted mentors and the program, Costello found again the man he once thought was gone.

"As it turns out, the medication worked and I just kept going more and more and completing each goal that I had set," Costello said.

Before he knew it, Costello had his foot in the door of a plumbing career.

"I work for a company who really appreciates my work. I actually made employee of the year a month ago, they gave me that at the company party," Costello said.

Though getting to this point undoubtedly took a lion's share of strength from Costello, he acknowledges he couldn't have done it without the help of his mentors in the program, calling them his "first responders."

"That's how important they are to me. They treated me with a lot of respect," he said.

Army veteran Robert Farmer, right, hugs Bailey Davis, Steps Recovery Center Murray manager, after Farmer graduated from Veteran’s Court at the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City on Thursday.

Army veteran Robert Farmer, right, hugs Bailey Davis, Steps Recovery Center Murray manager, after Farmer graduated from veteran’s court at the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov 10, 2022.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

His words of advice to anyone else in recovery?

Trust the process.

"Everything starts coming together. Even though it might seem like a long time, you're going to understand that that is probably going to be the biggest benefit for you," Costello said. "We're all different people. I believe it's a work in progress."

He said that even though he and his fellow graduates at the courthouse were celebrating the end of the program, he was looking at things a bit differently.

"The start of my new beginning. It's not all about rules, it's going to be about my own free will and being able to do it on my own," Costello said.

Amberton and Costello were joined in celebration by fellow graduates, Army veteran Robert Farmer and Air Force veteran Elizabeth Torres.