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Veterans Court Open In South Dakota

July 7, 2014, 10:00 PM by Erich Schaffhauser

WATERTOWN, SD -

South Dakota's first veterans treatment court is open.

Part of the state's judicial reform lawmakers passed last year, it'll offer veterans alternate sentences such as treatment rather than prison. South Dakota's Chief Justice David Gilbertson and others were in Watertown to open the Codington County Veterans Court Monday.

Gilbertson called on the community to seek out the root of the problem when a veteran breaks the law.

"The real issue is 'what got them there?,'" Gilbertson said. "Was it self-medicating by alcohol, by drugs, mental illness, bringing back the problems by serving our country in harm’s way?"

Gilbertson says a veterans court needs three things. It needs a plan, which started developing in the state after Gilbertson heard leaders in Texas talk about a successful program there. It also needs a team of community members to set up and carry out the court, holding participants accountable. Finally, the program needs a care provider. In this case, it'll be the VA where service members can be referred for treatment.

"Working cooperatively is an honorable way to support our war heroes," said Darwin Goodspeed, director of Sioux Falls VA Health System.

Codington County’s is the first pilot program in the state. Eventually it will be one of three. Officials with the state's judicial system expect a veterans court to open in Sioux Falls next year and another in Rapid City within a few years.

"This is just the beginning today and I know it will succeed and it will be the example, the role model to set this program up statewide," Gilbertson said.

As a veteran herself, Gena Keller hopes that's true. She expects the program to help veterans while also bringing awareness to their unique needs.

"A person who had never been off to serve the country or been off in a wartime situation probably doesn't understand what the initials PTSD stand for," Keller said.

Officials say it takes at least a couple years to start up a veterans court and that involves a lot of training. Members of the Sioux Falls team were in Minnesota Monday observing a veterans court as part of their training.

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