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Alumnus helping vets transition from combat boots to recovery

Thursday, December 12, 2013
  • Ben Olson is a volunteer with the Marion County Veterans Treatment Court in Salem, Ore.

For many who have returned from war, the battlefield is no longer in the streets of Iraq, Afghanistan or Vietnam, but in the court system.

A unique Marion County, Ore. program is pairing veterans who have run afoul of the law with volunteer mentors in an effort to honor their service and reintegrate them into their communities. In Fall 2013, Corban University psychology major and Marine veteran Ben Olson, ’13, evaluated the effectiveness of the Marion County Veterans Treatment Court as part of an internship required for graduation.

The court is overseen by Vance Day, a judge in the Marion County Circuit Court. The program accepts veterans who have drug and alcohol addictions or treatable mental health disorders and are currently in jail or otherwise in the court system. Volunteer mentors work with the veterans, the court and treatment teams to design plans and provide a network of resources and support.

The program was implemented in September 2012. In September 2013, the Bureau of Justice Assistance awarded a nearly $350,000 3-year federal grant to the program. The court meets bi-monthly to select candidates for the program and follow up with those in it. Olson said the Marion County program is now considered a model for the nation.

Olson served as a volunteer for the court prior to his internship.  The effects of the experience has been personal for him.

“When I came back, I had vets who came around me and understood what I had been through,” Olson said. “What I see when I look at these guys is that it could easily have been me.”

Olson’s study was conducted through anonymous surveys and three focus groups, one for the court-appointed mentors and two for veterans participating in the court.

The volunteer mentors are required to be veterans. Some had overcome their own pasts in the courts and with addictions and want to serve others.

“They are veterans who feel they have an obligation not to leave their fellow veterans behind,” Olson said. “They are a little older and wiser. They are a little further down the road and can be good role models.”

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, nearly 10 percent of those incarcerated are veterans and most of those served in combat. The majority of VTC program participants previously served in the Army and nearly all were part Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. In addition to regular court appearances, they must be involved in addiction recovery groups such as Celebrate Recovery and Alcoholics Anonymous several times weekly.

Overall, the results of Olson’s study showed that the expectations of mentors and program participants often weren’t clearly spelled out. Mentors wanted additional training in crisis intervention and suicide prevention. Participants wanted mentors to have more training and experience in addiction recovery. However, it also noted that both mentors and participants were mostly satisfied with the VTC program and how it was affecting recovery efforts and life changes.

Olson hopes his study will give program coordinators a clear vision of changes that could be implemented to further improve the program and success rate of its participants.

Olson completed his psychology degree at Corban University in December and will begin the master of counseling program at George Fox University in January. He hopes to continue serving veterans as a counselor once he graduates and is certified as a licensed counselor.

“I have been through counseling in the opposite chair,” he said. “The healing process from war takes time. Veterans need to be able to talk to someone who has worn the same combat boots as they have.”

The Marion County Veterans Treatment Court is currently looking for volunteer mentors. For more information, call Veterans Court Coordinator Elan Lambert at 503-999-9358 or email her at elan.lambert@ojd.state.or.us.