'Touchy, feely, kissy, huggy court' for veterans expanding across US

By Kevin Freking

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Sept. 2 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

"Straight A's?" the judge asked.

"I'm getting there. I'm getting there," Peters said with a sheepish smile.

"You've got to make sure they're C's, minimum," Dugan said. Moments later he returns to his pet issue — urging the defendants to take advantage of generous educational benefits for returning veterans. He said the only reason he's a judge is that he has a piece of paper showing that he's got a law degree.

"I'm no smarter than when I was a bartender," Dugan tells the veterans.

Piscitelli is among the veterans reeling from heroin abuse. His drug of choice upon returning from Iraq was OxyContin, a highly addictive pain killer. He said he was spending as much as $500 a day on drugs, and when money started to get tight, acquaintances turned him on to heroin, which could be found for as little as $10 a bag.

He recalls his dad pleading with him to take stock of what he had become, but he was too far gone.

"Being addicted to such a powerful drug, you do anything to make money, so I started committing crimes, petty crimes, whether it was retail thefts, or whatever means we had to do to steal or manipulate to get money," he said.

By the summer of 2011, Piscitelli had been arrested four times, twice for possession and twice for retail theft. He sat in the county jail for nearly two months before court officials learned of his status as a veteran and offered him the chance to consolidate all of his charges in veterans court.

He would have to get therapy, pass his urine tests and stay out of trouble. If he does, he'll successfully complete the terms of his probation. If he fails, he'll face the prospect of a revocation hearing and going to jail.

Piscitelli has a long way to go, but like many of the defendants who lined up before Dugan, his future is looking brighter. He hasn't failed a drug test since he entered veterans court more than a year ago. He'll have to keep it up for about another year to join one of the court's twice-yearly graduation classes.

Outside the courtroom, Peters and Piscitelli reflected on their experience so far. Jail served as a big motivator, they said. The social services the court connected them with gave them the structure they needed to start healing.

"I was so busy, and I guess I'm grateful for it," Piscitelli said. "Being held accountable for in so many different places gave me a chance to start getting my life back."

Online: Justice for Vets: http://www.justiceforvets.org

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