By GARY POPP
NEW ALBANY — Floyd County Superior Court Judge Maria Granger’s courtroom recently overflowed with people who gathered to recognize the first graduate of the county’s Veterans Court.
Susan Jones, 26, a member of the United States Naval Reserve and a student at Indiana University Southeast, entered the Veterans Court after she was charged with battery resulting in bodily injury in December 2011. Jones said the charge came nearly a year after she had served 11 months in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
While serving in Afghanistan, Jones said she didn’t experience any trauma that she directly relates to her subsequently getting in legal trouble and becoming involved with Veterans Court. She did say, however, the transition of returning to life in Floyd County as a civilian wasn’t easy for her, and even more difficult for others to understand who haven’t served overseas.
“Just being in that environment [in Afghanistan] you go into a whole different mode,” Jones said. “Your adrenaline switch is turned on, and it is like when you come home nobody understands it.”
Jones said when she returned from her tour of duty, she was disoriented by the lack of structure of a normal, civilian life.
“[In combat], you wake up a certain time. You know what you are going to do. You know when it is going to end. And, you know if something happens you got to be ready to go. You are kind of always in fight-or-flight mode — survival mode. It is hard to cut that loose when you get back home,” Jones said. “When you come home, you don’t have that structure. There is too much freedom [here], and there, it is, like, a given. You know what has to be done. There are no questions about it. I just don’t think anyone understands how it is when you come home. It is hard to reacclimate and readjust to civilian life.”
Jones said she had never been in trouble with the law before, so she still wasn’t sure what would have been in store for her had she not been taken into Granger’s Veterans Court.
“Just by seeing the papers of the all the fees and you got to do this and you got to do so many jail days, it definitely wasn’t something I wanted to do or was looking forward to doing,” Jones said of the conventional route taken by civilian offenders. “I was scared to death.”
Through the Veterans Court — which Jones said she was not expecting to be involved in — she worked with four different mentors, all of whom have histories in the military.
“Of all people, they know the struggles, and they understand the obstacles you face when you come home,” she said. “Anything you wanted to talk about, they would talk to you about or give you their advice or point of view.”
The court provided resources to Jones to help her prevent situations like the one that led to her arrest and battery charge.
“I am learning a lot,” Jones said. “In my case, mine was more mental rather than drug related. So, part of my treatment was anger management and to go see a psychiatrist.”
Jones said she was underwent 10 anger management classes as an offender in Veterans Court.
“You just learn how to handle things differently,” Jones said. “One of the main things I learned was that you have to turn off that survival mode. There are things that you can’t control. Things that are beyond your control.”
Granger and others initially got behind Veterans Court, which was established in January 2012, to help service members who have experienced the disorientation felt by Jones.
She said that Veterans Court has become to be known as “the court that cares.”
After the ceremony, Granger said she was proud to have the opportunity to congratulate the unique court’s first graduate.
“It is just a very special day. It is very special to me,” she said. “This is a labor of love for me. It means a lot. I spend a lot of my time and energy working with the court and working with the participants, working with the team. It is just very special.”
The team of volunteer mentors and the court staff who makes Veterans Court possible in Floyd County were also commended during the ceremony. Those who filled the courtroom during the graduation included officers with New Albany Police Department and Floyd County Sheriff’s Office, court officials from Clark and Floyd counties and a few of Jones’ fellow servicemen.
During the ceremony, Granger provided Jones with a certificate of achievement and gave her a medallion embossed with the insignia of Veterans Court of Southern Indiana.
“She is an excellent candidate for the program,” Granger said of Jones. “We saw her make significant strides from where she started to today. That tells me that she is on her way to a life that is going to be productive for her, and it’s going to get her back on track.”
Granger said there six veterans going through the court, and that she anticipates the court will graduate about four veterans each year.
“Some will stay in the program for as little as 12 months. Some may stay for 18 months. Some may stay longer depending on their needs,” she said.
Granger said she hopes that the Veterans Court program will grow and become inclusive of surrounding areas.
Jones said she is thankful to Granger and the others who have made the Veterans Court in Floyd County an option for veterans who find themselves facing criminal charges.
“It feels good,” she said of the support from so many people. “It feels good to know people are watching, even if you didn’t know they were watching.”
Jones said she intends to eventually transfer to the University of Louisville and eventually getting a job as a dental hygienist. Her studies will put on hold, however, as she has volunteered to return to Afghanistan this summer. She said through her experience in Veterans Court she feels more equipped to handle her second transition back to civilian life when she returns from her deployment
“Since I have gone and come home once already, I pretty much I know what to expect,” Jones said. “It won’t be easy, but I’ll know what to expect, and I know if I do have any problems, I know where to come to.”