First class from Benton Co. veterans court will soon graduate from program

BENTON COUNTY, Wash. — Veterans Therapeutic Court will soon graduate their first class from the program in Benton County.

It started in June 2019 with a few veterans facing misdemeanors and felonies. A veteran is nominated for the program either by the judge, prosecutor or defense attorney. Currently, 26 people are enrolled with more wanting to enter.

“The growth has been rapid,” said Tom Mattis, Marine veteran and trainer for program mentors.

You might recognize his last name. He’s the oldest brother of the Mattis family, related to General Jim Mattis. They’re very well-known in the Tri-Cities community. Mattis also works for the Columbia Basin Veterans Center. He said the program has been successful so far.

“What we’ve had is an excellent response from the veterans community and I anticipate that we will have little problem finding an adequate number of mentors to support their fellow veterans in the court,” he explained.

The veterans are paired up with a mentor – also a veteran. They help the defendants follow up with court hearings every week and connect them to resources and treatment. Mentors also stand with the veterans while they are at the stand.

RELATED: Benton County District Court starts new veterans therapeutic program

“It’s giving me a lot of hope to be able to recover from some of the bad choices I made and get back on the path that I want to be to succeed in life,” said Kaitlyn Dove, an Army combat medic veteran.

Dove’s mentor was in the Air Force.

“He’s really supportive and has a lot of ideas as far as getting back into school just lots of resources that I need to help me succeed and that’s really awesome,” she said.

Lee Williams said he’s happy to be a part of a program like this.

“Just to see the life change and hear the life stories — it’s absolutely amazing so it’s nice to give back,” he said.

Williams told KAPP-KVEW that a lot of veterans experience the lack of camaraderie, mission and identity once they get out of the military. His and Mattis’s role are aimed to give veterans meaning in life.

“It gives me a sense of purpose,” Mattis said. “A reason for me to wake up in the morning and find a way to give back to my community.”

Mattis said they can have as many as 40 defendants in the program.

Benton County District Court Judge Dan Kathren has been seen clapping in the courtroom and praising veterans for doing well and following their program. He also throws in a joke about Marines now and again, playing into longstanding jokes between the military branches. This helps create a comfortable environment for participants.

In a previous interview with KAPP-KVEW, Kathren said many issues for veterans are either addiction or mental health problems – some possibly stemming from the military.

The program is about a year to 18 months. If the person graduates, their charges will be dropped or reduced.

As someone moves through the program they graduate from specific phases, receiving a certificate and congratulations from everyone in the courtroom. With every phase, they get one step closer to graduating.

To be a mentor you must be a veteran. For more information, contact Mattis with the Columbia Basin Veteran Center at (509) 876-1753.