The court relies on mentors to work with offenders who are military veterans and are trying to get their lives back on track following a criminal conviction.

CANTON  Stan Nabors recalls coming home from serving in Iraq.

He was coping with the lingering impact of head injuries from two roadside bomb attacks during Operation Iraqi Freedom. And the 35-year-old Jackson Township resident was struggling to acclimate to life away from a war zone with his band of fellow soldiers.

Nabors found himself isolated, even with those he knew well. But the Army veteran eventually found support and help recovering from his concussions. Gradually, the former military police officer began to adjust.

That progress continued when he became a veteran mentor in Stark County Honor Court in 2015.

"It changed my life," said Nabors of his interaction with fellow veterans. "And I was able to give back. Helping these guys and girls, besides my family, is the most important thing in my life."

Honor Court is a specialized treatment court for veterans and active duty service members who have been charged with felony offenses in Stark County Common Pleas Court. The court recently marked its 25th graduation ceremony for veterans who successfully completed the program.

The seventh annual Honor Court Mentor Breakfast is scheduled for 9 a.m. on May 25 at the MAPS Air Museum for a cost of $15 per person. For more information about the breakfast, contact Lisa Williams, Honor Court director, at: lmwilliams@starkcountyohio.gov

Veterans helping veterans

Since its inception in 2011, the program has expanded its criteria from serving low-level, non-violent felony offenders to include high-risk offenders, on a case-by-case basis.

The specialized court relies on community resources and supporters as well as volunteer mentors who can relate to fellow veterans while bonding through the shared experience of having served their country.

Although Honor Court has nearly 20 mentors, new ones are always welcomed and needed, Williams said. Female mentors are also welcome because 18 of the current mentors are men, she said. Serving as a mentor requires at least a one-year commitment.

Qualifying as a mentor also requires being honorably discharged from one of the branches of the U.S. military; having a genuine concern for veterans involved in the legal system; being in good standing with the law; completing the required training and background checks; and agreeing to attend all Honor Court sessions.

Mentors George Waseity Jr., 67, of Hartville, and James Scalf, 72, of Canton, both said they find their involvement in Honor Court to be rewarding.

"We're just a group of vets trying to help another group of vets,"Scalf said of the emotional support and guidance provided. "The goal is to help them get their life back on track."

Scalf, who is the Honor Court mentor coordinator, achieved the rank of master chief in the Navy in various submarine commands, serving from 1966 until retirement in 1995. Nabors achieved the rank of staff sergeant and served as a military police officer in the 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. Waseity served in the Army in the 23rd Artillery Group in Vietnam in 1970 and 1971.

Nabors said helping a fellow veteran is an extension of the brotherhood inherent in military service.

Scalf agreed: "We actually become closer than your blood brother."

Patience and understanding

Mentors support honor court participants in a variety of ways, including meeting with them for 30 minutes to an hour prior to court sessions. Mentors help identify support needs as well as monitoring progress. Trust is also developed, especially if a participant is hesitant to trust those affiliated with the court system.

Honor Court draws upon the codes of honor and service instilled in the participants during their military service to help them complete the program.

The goal is to aid the veterans in becoming productive members of society, said Waseity, who serves as the honor court assistant mentor coordinator.

Patience and understanding are key qualities for mentors when reaching out to Honor Court participants, Williams said.

For those interested in becoming a veteran mentor, contact Scalf via email at n.scalf@sbcglobal.net

Since 2011, a total of 143 veterans (including the current group of 16) have participated in Honor Court, including 85 graduates and 42 offenders who did not complete the program, Williams said. Among the graduates, there has been a 4 percent felony and 12 percent misdemeanor recidivism rate, she said.

Williams acknowledged that some veterans are terminated from Honor Court because they fail to meet requirements or abscond. Sometimes a veteran who finds themselves in the court system is "not ready to engage in a healthy, sober lifestyle," she said.

Waseity echoed those sentiments. "You can't work harder at someone's recovery than they're willing to work," he said.

Network of support

Certified by the Ohio Supreme Court as a specialized treatment court, the program is designed to create a network of support systems to help Honor Court participants comply with probation conditions and continue on as productive members of the community, according to a description of Honor Court posted online at: http://www.starkcountyohio.gov/common-pleas/honor-court-1

Honor Court relies on community resources to assist offenders with housing, clothing and finding employment if necessary. Participants are connected with treatment for substance abuse, mental health issues and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder if necessary. Assistance comes from the Stark County Veterans Service Commission as well as other veterans organizations and community agencies, Williams said.

The court also strives to link participating veterans with services available through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Participants reap other benefits, including learning accountability and boosting their sense of self-worth. "I've had a lot of people tell me they haven't felt like a veteran until Honor Court," Williams said.

Felony offenders are accepted into the specialized court based on a number of factors, including being a Stark County resident and pleading guilty to the charged offense or offenses. The charge or charges are eligible for diversion, probation or re-entry programming. Participants cannot be a convicted sex offender.

New mentors receive training and shadow a mentor over the course of at least a month before he or she is assigned to an offender, Williams said. Established mentors also receive a form of continuing education.

Mentors include police chiefs, attorneys and deputies. "It is a huge responsibility to mentor," Williams said. An Honor Court mentor may be the only person the participating veteran can rely on, she said.

Changing lives

Common Pleas Judge Taryn Heath has presided over Honor Court since it was established.

Along with mentors, Honor Court includes an advisory committee and team of volunteers in order to monitor program adherence. Status review hearings take place regularly for veterans who are enrolled. Successful completion takes at least one year.

The approach to Honor Court "tends to be less punitive and more directional," Waseity said. Mistakes happen, he said of participants, but the key to overcoming them is honesty.

"We're not here to judge anybody," he said. "To me the reward is being involved in helping someone change their lives and overcome the problems of the past."

Nabors said that Honor Court has been a two-way street. He helps offenders. They help him.

"Once you have that camaraderie (in the military) and bond and you lose that, it's like you lost a piece of yourself," he said. "Getting back around other veterans and getting that camaraderie back and gaining that piece of me back, I definitely became something akin to what I used to be and I was happier in my life."

Reach Ed at 330-580-8315

and ed.balint@cantonrep.com

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