NASHUA, N.H. (AP) - New Hampshire's first court dedicated to helping veterans charged with crimes won't be its last.
Veterans' advocates and health care providers will meet this month to begin planning a similar court for Grafton County, located near Vermont's White River Junction Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
The first session of the Veterans Behavioral Health Track program was held last week in Nashua District Court, where three veterans facing various misdemeanor charges faced a judge. Among them was Jimmie McNeil of Nashua, who served in an Army Rangers combat support division unit from 1981 to 1984 and in the Army Reserves for nine years after that.
McNeil, 50, was originally charged with felony theft for stealing $584 from a Nashua restaurant when he quit as kitchen manager over a long-running wage and overtime dispute. His crime was reduced to a misdemeanor, and he was referred to veterans court.
He told The Associated Press he trained hard as part of the elite military unit, and the notion to fight, kill and not take any guff from anybody "was pounded into our heads every single day."
"When you get out, It doesn't stop," McNeil said softly. He explained that the restaurant owner's refusal to pay what he had promised "put me in that defensive mode."
There are about 160 veterans' courts nationwide.
Jo Moncher, chief of community-based military programs for the state Department of Health and Human Services, said the mental health courts operating in many counties are not enough. She said veterans have unique issues.
"They're exposed to the horrors of war," Moncher said. "They're exposed to seeing men and women lose their lives."
She said many cope with depression, substance abuse, nightmares, sleep disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder after leaving service. The veterans docket will focus on intensive treatment to help get veterans back on track and keep them from repeating their crimes.
There are about 114,000 veterans living in New Hampshire, according to a report this year by the Commission on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury, which notes that New Hampshire is the only state without a full service VA medical center. The same report states that, from 2007 to December 2013, 248 veterans were determined to be at high risk of committing suicide.
Diane Levesque, who runs the Veterans Justice Outreach program at the VA Medical Center in Manchester and is a liaison for the new court, said she has an active caseload of more than 100 veterans with pending criminal charges. She also said about 260 convicted veterans are behind bars in the state's prisons - many of them honorably discharged Vietnam vets.
McNeil said he isn't sure how the court works or how it can help him. But, he said: "Anything to help keep me straightened out, I'll take it."