One by one, veterans and congressional representatives entered the courtroom in downtown Missoula and sat waiting for the judge. Outside in the hallway, Billy Jo Chaffin waited quietly, a partial mix of anxiety and anticipation.
She’d come to get it over with.
On Tuesday afternoon, Chaffin joined the growing ranks of veterans to graduate from Co-Occurring Treatment Court, a rigorous but fair program designed to give wayward vets a second chance. For Chaffin, her struggles began 20 years ago when she was raped in the service and, until recently, she hadn’t talked about it.
The road to healing has been long and arduous.
“I went from being a super soldier to damaged property,” she said before the ceremony. “With my PTSD and the alcohol as my major coping mechanism – it’s why I ended up in treatment court.”
Chaffin, who served as a chemical reconnaissance specialist in the Army, isn’t long on words. She’s soft spoken, answers with sir or ma’am, and looks back on her past challenges as a gift.
Those challenges came to a head one night in Mineral County, where she was charged with family domestic violence. It landed her in jail and her lawyer, seeing an opportunity for redemption and recovery, directed her toward Veterans Court.
“With the combination of them making me go out instead of isolating and seek the help I needed, it’s changed my life completely,” said Chaffin. “A sober life has really helped me get in touch spiritually with God and my church. I think that’s what truly has saved my life.”
As is the case with many veterans engaged in the program, there were stumbles along the way. Chaffin was caught drinking with her wife at a local bar during a wedding, though she overcame the setback – something that earned praise from Brenda Desmond, the standing master of Missoula Veterans Court.
“You’re clearly very talented and you got through the program very quickly with almost no missteps,” Desmond said. “When there were little problems, and whether we agreed on whether a program rule was violated, you just did what you needed to do. I think that’s really going to serve you well.”
Co-Occurring Treatment Court with Veterans was founded in Buffalo, New York, in 2008. The program found its start in Missoula in 2011, making it the first court of its kind in Montana.
The effort blends a number of resources, from the VA Montana Health Care System to local prosecutors, public defenders and a team of volunteer mentors, several of whom attended Chaffin’s graduation.
They never judge, but rather offer a helping hand when needed.
“I’ve seen a big change in you,” one mentor told Chaffin. “I’ve seen the strength you have and the resilience, given the fact that you didn’t want to be here to begin with. I’m proud you stuck to it and with it. I appreciate the strength you’ve given me.”
Those who have graduated from the program often look back on the before and after with clearer vision. Turning to those in the courtroom, Chaffin folded her hands and thanked her supporters, most of whom are veterans themselves.
Then she offered encouragement to those still engaged in the program.
“You can do this,” she told them. “It may be a struggle, but you really have to look at what they’re trying to do for us. Don’t play games, just get it done. Just do what you’re supposed to do, just like you did in the service. Knuckle down and do it.”
Since its founding, Veterans Court in Missoula has enlisted more than 50 participants. More than half are combat veterans from post-9/11 conflicts. The court’s completion rate is high – just north of 80 percent – giving it high marks from Montana lawmakers, including Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines.
The program takes more than a year to complete – one year and three weeks in Chaffin’s case. For some, it may seem an eternity, but for Chaffin it was worth the time.
“You cannot pray and love and live in hate,” she said. “That’s totally what I was doing. I wasn’t letting go of the hurt and hate in my heart. I was holding on to it. My appointments have held me accountable and my walk with God has gotten super strong. I know that’s what saved my life.”
Given its relatively low cost, Desmond views the program as a deal, both for the veterans in the system and the taxpayers. Still, it struggles for funding each year, though Desmond remains optimistic about its future.
Dressed in a black judge’s robe, she offered Chaffin her own farewell.
“It’s been great working with you,” Desmond said. “I’m going to miss you. I know you’re not going to miss us – you don’t have to miss us. But I hope you’ll consider being a mentor. You can make a big difference to someone there.”