It's been nearly five years since Stearns County and the city of St. Cloud launched a program aimed at helping veterans charged with an offense related to mental health or substance use.
The Veterans Protocol offers an alternative court process to veterans whose military experience — either during war or peace — may have contributed to their legal problems.
The program was modeled after veterans' courts in other Minnesota counties like Washington and Hennepin.
"We're trying to look at some of the root causes — mental health or substance use — and then use the treatment court to focus on some of those root causes, and hopefully affect that behavior in the future," said Cory Vaske, Stearns County veterans service officer.
Since its November 2013 launch, 54 veterans have participated in the program, and 27 have graduated. Ten are currently enrolled.
"I've seen veterans come into the protocol who have a 20-year-plus history of offenses related to substance use," Vaske said. "They may have still had some recidivism, but it doesn't mean they didn't experience some success during that time frame."
Now county and city officials want to expand what they see as a critical piece — veterans who can serve as mentors.
"What we're looking for in that mentor is somebody to be a sounding board, a positive interaction a couple times a month, to be able to talk about if the veteran participant is struggling with sobriety," Vaske said. "Just to be able to talk to somebody is kind of the primary focus."
The mentors must be veterans, but they do not need a legal background or experience. Training is provided. Mentors are required to make weekly contact with the veteran.
Those interested in becoming a mentor should call 320-656-6176. Vaske said mentors from any military branch of service or experience are welcome.
The death of a veteran who drowned in the Mississippi River in St. Cloud last week highlighted the importance of help for veterans struggling with mental health issues.
Media reports said Shannon Shaw had sought help for post-traumatic stress disorder and had numerous contacts with law enforcement before he walked into the river Monday afternoon. His body was recovered Tuesday evening.