Largest-ever veterans event at county fairgrounds a chance to offer help to struggling vets

Local veterans were honored Friday morning at the county fairgrounds as the Butler County Veterans Service Commission (BCVSC) hosted its largest Veterans Day ceremony yet.

BCVSC Executive Director Mike Farmer estimated that 150 folks came to the event, which has historically been hosted at The Lodge Activity Center, but was moved to the fairgrounds to accommodate a larger audience.

The event’s keynote speaker was Judge Michael A. Oster, who presides over the Veterans Treatment Court at the Butler County Common Pleas Court, the first veteran-specific court in county history.

Oster’s court accepts, at his staff’s discretion, Butler County veterans who have been charged with a felony. As a condition of probation, participants receive court-appointed treatment in an attempt to keep non-violent veterans out of incarceration.

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Ohio Revised Code advises all judges to consider a defendant’s veteran status when sentencing, but Oster found that many veterans fail to identify themselves as such when facing charges, foregoing the chance for additional consideration or connection to helpful resources.

“Will you raise your hand if you’re a veteran?” Oster asked, as the crowd complied. “You’re willing to put your hand up. But did you know most of the veterans I see in my court would not have put their hand up when I just asked?”

Oster said veterans have failed to identify themselves as such to him personally when he’s asked, “Are you a veteran?”

“What I learned is: That’s the wrong question. The question I have to ask is, ‘Have you ever served or participated in the United States military?’”

“Ladies and gentleman, that’s heartbreaking. That should devastate us,” Oster said. “The honorable men and women who have served our country, if they’ve fallen to something, an addiction or a problem in life, they won’t say they’re a veteran.”

Oster said his team and the Butler County Sheriff’s office found that, when asked, fewer than 50% of veterans identified themselves as such, even when being placed in the Butler County Jailhouse.

“My personal goal, as I run this court, will always be to give veterans back every ounce of pride and honor that they deserve,” Oster said. “They should never feel like they’ve lost that sense of honor or pride.”

‘We need volunteers’

Oster’s court, then, was specifically designed with this phenomenon in mind. Its aim is to take veterans struggling with addiction, PTSD or even behavior-affecting brain injuries and connect them to treatment options and help them get “back on track.”

Statistically, U.S. veterans are at a considerably higher suicide risk than the average American adult. The most recent analysis from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs shows that over 17 veterans take their own lives every day. Veterans are susceptible to PTSD and substance abuse disorders, too, according to the VA.

Oster said nearly 80% of his court’s participants have graduated from the program — about a two-year-long process. The outcomes, Oster said, are high stakes: a success can be a veteran reuniting with their family or ditching their addiction, while the failures can be overdoses or death.

Farmer, a veteran himself, cited the struggles that vets are more likely to endure. In light of those issues, he and the BCVSC announced a mentorship program for veterans to help other veterans.

“We need veterans to mentor those on the treatment dockets,” Farmer said to the crowd. “We need volunteers. What does it look like to mentor? It’s having that connection, going one-on-one with a veteran, building that bond and that camaraderie, and helping them get through the phases of the veteran treatment program.”

In Butler County, programs like the Veterans Treatment Court and mentorship programs spearheaded by Farmer and the BCVSC are attempts to grant more resources to veterans, and ultimately encourage those who are struggling to ask for help.

“Everybody here, you look good — lots of ties, everybody had a great breakfast, you’re feeling good. Somebody here is struggling,” Oster said. “You can’t have this many people in a room and have somebody not have an issue, not be struggling in some way.”

“Somebody here is struggling. Be brave enough to ask for help,” Oster said. “I see what you’re wearing. I see the pride. Don’t be too prideful to ask for help, please.”

The ceremony also worked as a chance to recognize Fred Bailey as the Butler County Veteran of the Year. Bailey, who attended with family, served in Vietnam and received several military recognitions during his service.

For the past 30 years, Bailey has placed and removed the tribute flags on all Veteran graves in Hamilton for Memorial Day. He was kept in the dark about the award he was receiving — a new approach for the award from the BCVSC.

“It was a surprise. A very, very big surprise,” Bailey said through a smile. “Just, being recognized, you know, it means a whole lot.”

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