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The Sunny South Tampa Blog

VTC Helps Veterans with the Tough Move to Civilian Life

By Jordan Alexander

Change is hard.

Changing careers is scary. Leaving the military is no exception. Looking back, I made a lot of mistakes during my transition from the military. However, I did get one thing right…thanks to an old mentor of mine.

Mentors are key.

The help and advice from trusted mentors can set you on the right path.

During 22 years of military service, I was fortunate to have a handful of wonderful, experienced, very patient people in my life. Somehow, they always seemed to find the time for me. When I first began to think about leaving the Army, one of them really stuck out.

What didn’t he do? He didn’t try to talk me out of leaving the service. He knew service requires a family’s sacrifice and trusted the time was right for my family. Instead, he gave me a list of reinterment lessons learned he collected over the years from his mentors. It was free advice, but it was priceless.

Know what matters.

First thing on the list: decide where you want your family to live. Settle your family in a good community. Take care of your family first. Work will follow.

At the time, like most veterans, I was very worried about finding work in the civilian sector. But after years of dragging my family all over the country from assignment to assignment, that advice resonated with me. Digging in and growing roots in a strong community sounded right to me. We chose Tampa.  

Heart for service.

Tampa was the location of our last assignment. During our time here, we found an amazing church, amazing neighbors, and a diverse community. Although a diverse community has a wide range of views, we found that Tampa shares fundamental core values with our family.

I believe deeply in service. Tampa is very grateful and supportive of those who serve. It is a wonderful place to live for first responders. It’s also great for everyone in local government, military, hospitality, education, and law enforcement. No community is perfect. But in Tampa, there are countless examples, big and small, that reinforce my belief that the Tampa community is grateful to those who serve us. I would like to tell you about just one.      

High risk occupation.

Any transition is tough, but our veterans’ service carries a unique burden. Since 9/11, substance use disorders (SUD) continue to rise among veterans. SUD is tied to medical problems, depression, and anxiety. Additionally, those with SUD experience interpersonal and vocational impairment plus increased rates of suicidal ideation and attempts.

Disturbingly one study suggests that drug and alcohol use precede approximately 30% of completed suicides. Since 2001, more than 114,000 veterans have died of suicide. It’s the second-leading cause of death for post-9/11 veterans. The average number of suicide deaths per day is 17.8. Over 40% of veterans experience a high level of difficulty during the transition. And studies show those individuals are 5x more likely to experience suicidal ideation.

Local Answers to National Problems.

This is a nationwide problem that impacts every community. Enter Tampa’s Veterans Treatment Court (VTC). This organization relies on retired veterans who volunteer to mentor jailed veterans struggling through service-related mental illness and substance abuse.

Proceedings at the Veteran's Military Court in Tampa.
Proceedings at the Veteran’s Military Court in Tampa.
Photo courtesy of the 13th Judicial Circuit.

The VTC is focused on veterans who have committed felonies and misdemeanors who need rehabilitation and treatment. However, they are unlikely to seek help. In an interview with the Military Times, a VTC retired Army Colonel DJ Reyes said “We’re not out to punish. This is a treatment and rehab court. We’re here to identify illnesses and conditions. We’re here to get veterans well.”

The program sets high standards for volunteers and is run with military precision. My wife, Sunny Alexander, is also a veteran and volunteered as a VTC mentor. She experienced an intense six-month vetting and training program. She was impressed, not only by the intensity and professionalism of the training but the deep commitment of the VTC Senior Mentors. According to Sunny, “it is amazing to witness these veterans go through this program and turn their life around. It is a very real and meaningful experience.” The formula seems to work. Amazingly, according to the Tampa Bay Times, this VTC has a 10% recidivism rate.

The Gold Standard

VTC Mentors, like Sunny Alexander (far right), go through an intense six-
month training program to get certified and start helping troubled veterans.
Photo courtesy of Senior Delgado|VTC Senior Mentor

 “We are blessed in Pinellas and Pasco Counties to have a gold standard veterans treatment court program. These programs offer life-saving and life-changing second chances to non-violent veterans caught in the criminal justice system. Many communities, however, are not so fortunate. Veterans are going without access to this critical support,” said Congressman Charlie Crist.

The Hillsborough veteran’s court was a model for the Nation when Congress sought to expand financial support to such programs at the National level. In 2020, the bipartisan Veteran Treatment Court Coordination Act was signed into law. “With this new law, thousands more veterans across the country facing the criminal justice system will have an alternative to jail time. It ensures veterans get the treatment they need,” said Rep. Crist.

Eligibility for Veteran’s Treatment Court

  • The defendant has served or is serving in the United States Armed Forces, including National Guard and Reserves.
  • The charge(s) stem from physical injuries or mental issues that are the result of the defendant’s military service.
  • The charge(s) are misdemeanor(s) or third degree felonies.
  • The defendant has not previously participated in VTC, unless this criterion is specifically waived by the State Attorney’s Office.
  • The defendant’s mental health/substance abuse assessment indicates that he/she is amenable to mental health and/or substance abuse treatment. 

Veterans Treatment Court Goals

  • Improve access to VA benefits & services
  • Stabilize mental health and increase compliance with treatment
  • Facilitate participant sobriety and total wellness
  • Achieve stable housing
  • Improve family relationships & social connections
  • Increase employment & vocational opportunities
  • Advance educational status
  • Reduce criminal recidivism
Individuals who successfully complete the program often go on to lead healthier lives with more opportunities.
Photo courtesy of John Pendygraft|Times.

Interested in Becoming a Mentor?

Spend a few hours per month as a Volunteer Veteran Mentor! Improve our community, Help a fellow veteran, “Leave No Veteran Behind” Contact: Colonel, DJ Reyes, US Army (retired) Senior Veteran Mentor & Coordinator djreyes1957@gmail.com

Sunny Alexander is a volunteer veteran with the Veterans Treatment Court.  She owns the website Sunny South Tampa and is committed to building a stronger South Tampa community.  Subscribe to the Sunnysider blog to get more blogs like this delivered to your inbox.  Sunny is also a licensed Real Estate Broker, focused on serving the special needs of the military community.  She dedicates her professional life to helping neighbors and future neighbors find the home that’s right for them.  To get started finding your next home, visit her website, Sunny Sells Tampa, or call her at 931-237-6592.  At Sunny South Tampa, we are working to make South Tampa stronger. . . together!