Last week, three Army veterans became the 23rd, 24th and 25th graduates of Butler County’s Veterans Treatment Court, a specialized docket within the court of common pleas designed to help veterans with felony convictions.
“This is our eighth graduation that we are able to have from the Veterans Court,” said Judge Michael A. Oster, Jr, who has presided over the VTC since its inception in 2017. “But, I think even more importantly for a lot of us, it’s the first time we’re able to celebrate again, post-COVID, and all sit together.”
Courtroom A was filled with community members, which Oster said he felt was important for the program’s veterans to see after all this time with closed celebrations.
“When I tell them that the community supports them, now they see it, they feel it, and they know it,” Oster said.
The VTC program is split into four phases to accompany the naturally-staggered start times of each of its veteran clients. The phases are designed to last at least three months, but Oster said there’s no real limit on how long dedicated veterans are able to take. On average, Oster said, the process can be completed in 18 to 24 months.
Oster said last Tuesday’s graduations will bring the county’s VTC success rate to 80%.
“Lives have been changed, over and over, in this court,” Oster said. “We’ve had births, we’ve had weddings, we’ve had people overcoming addictions that sadly befall most people that run into them.”
The goal of the court, Oster said, is to equip struggling vets with the tools and resources to allow them to cleanly lead “normal, boring” lives.
“Going home to your family, arguing about what to eat, tucking your kids in at night, knowing that your family’s there for you, sometimes we consider that boring, but really isn’t that just the blessing of life?”
Graduate David Berryman, who started the program about a year and a half ago, said he initially began without much hope that the program would benefit him.
Over the course of the program, Berryman said he and his estranged wife both got sober at the same time and reconnected as a result. He then found a good job; the couple bought their own home; and just a few months ago the two welcomed their newborn son.
“I couldn’t be more happy to be where I’m at now, and I worked really hard to get where I’m at. I got my family back,” Berryman said in a short speech. “I have so many things that I accomplished, so many things I’m grateful for.”
Each phase, including graduation, is capped off with veterans reading their remarks about what they’d accomplished or learned in that respective phase, followed by a commemorative coin to mark the achievement.
For graduates, they also receive a certificate of completion, and Oster terminates their probation.
“You never have to see [your probation officer] again,” Oster said. “And that’s a good thing!”
Another graduate, Chris Bowlin, took over two years to finish the program, and came into it gruffly pessimistic, as Oster recounted.
“I told him, ‘We’re gonna work with you, you’re gonna put in hard work and we’re gonna get this, and you are gonna graduate,’ and he looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, I bet,’” Oster said. “He didn’t believe it, and in truth, I think he probably didn’t believe in himself, at that point. And yet, today, here he is, and he’s going to graduate.”
“Without this chance to get clean and sober, I don’t know where I’d be, but it sure wouldn’t be anywhere good — or sober,” Bowlin said in his remarks. “Now, I’m 14 months clean and I’m ready for that normal boring life I keep hearing about.”
‘An opportunity to get my life back together’
The final graduate, Johner Wical, Jr., spoke openly and at length about his journey through addiction, homelessness, the VTC, and where his life is at now.
Wical described the low point that brought him to VTC — his last binge period that started on Thanksgiving 2020 and lasted for over a month. Struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction, Wical said he wrecked his work truck, lost his job and his place of residence in quick succession, leaving him homeless.
“For the next 30 days I stayed as drunk as possible,” Wical said. “How far down the scale I went was pretty low.”
Eventually, he committed the crime that placed him into the VTC. Wical said this binge — his final binge — was one of the worst he’d experienced.
“I came to this program and saw it as an opportunity to get my life back together, and I was willing to do whatever they asked of me,” Wical said. “I saw over and over again that my best ideas on drinking and drugging led me back to the same position every time, and I was finally ready to accept that I needed help.”
Wical said, before the VTC program, he had bounced in and out of Alcoholics Anonymous for the better part of a decade without ever completing the 12 steps.
But, his mindset had changed when he entered the VTC. He had committed himself to coming clean, a dedication that Oster recognized.
“He got in and didn’t let his past stop him,” Oster said. “[He] threw himself into the program.”
“I finally was convinced that I can’t drink and drug successfully, and I have to fully abstain from alcohol and drugs to have a normal life again,” Wical said.
Wical said he’ll be two years sober in December. He’s completed his 12 steps and now acts as an advocate for AA, picking up folks for meetings and making himself available to those struggling with the program.
“Wouldn’t you know, after I stopped using drugs and alcohol, my life immediately got better,” Wical said. His friend offered him a job as an electrician, a job which Wical held for a year and a half before getting hired on as an electrician for a larger operation — a job Wical said he sees as a career.
During his time in VTC, Wical met and married his wife, who closed on their first home together just a few days after graduation. The couple is expecting their first child, a girl, this coming January.
While much of Wical’s recovery is uplifting, he’s also had to learn how to endure struggle in a new light.
“Just because you’re sober doesn’t mean life won’t hit you in the face. I found that out many times over the last two years,” he said.
Wical and his wife had a miscarriage earlier this year; he lost his uncle, who was instrumental in Wical’s recovery; and he’s seen many folks he’s connected with through AA suffer, and even die, as a result of addiction.
“Really, my life has consisted of seeing people I love die from addiction. Family members, good friends, some of my best friends have died from this disease,” Wical said.
Wical said the county’s Veterans Treatment Court program never asked him to do anything unreasonable, his probation officer never looked for reasons to send him to jail, and he felt he was treated with respect by staff and by Judge Oster.
“You wouldn’t even know he’s a judge — he just seems like a normal human being,” Wical said, which prompted laughs from the crowd. “That’s the change in me; I’m more comfortable around criminal justice people now.”