Santa Maria - North County

Unique court system helping veterans on the Central Coast

Unique court system helping veterans on the Central Coast

SANTA MARIA, Calif. - Edward Van Tassel, the Lompoc man accused of animal abuse, is listed on the docket for Wednesday, but he didn't show up to court.

We're now learning he is a part of the Veterans Treatment Court, a program specifically for veterans struggling with addiction, mental illness and other issues.

"These men and women actually did something for us - many of them gave their all for this country and some continue to suffer from the scars of military service so let's help them regain their footing as they come back to this country," explains Santa Barbara County Judge Rogelio Flores. 

Every other Friday, veterans in the treatment court meet with mentors and fellow veterans like Cary Gray to help them get back on their feet.

"So that's a typical day - two times a month for us but on the other days we're calling the vets, we're texting the vets, we're emailing the vets, finding out how they're doing so we can find out what we can do," Gray says. 

The program includes classes and therapy. 

Misdemeanor and felony charges can possibly get dropped, but Judge Flores says just because these people are veterans, it doesn't give them a defense.

"Being a veteran is not an excuse to commit a crime - you don't get a pass. As a matter of fact, we require veterans to do an intensive treatment program as part of being in the veterans treatment court. Our view is fixing the problem, let's not exacerbate it," he explains. 

Good Samaritan shelter in Santa Maria works closely with the veterans treatment court and even provides services of its own.

"We really pride ourselves on providing as many programs as we can for our veterans. [In fact,] about a year ago we opened our veteran house in Orcutt which is a six bedroom house for homeless veterans," Director of Homeless Services, Kirsten Cahoon tells us.

Cahoon says veterans are close to her heart because her dad was in the military. "It breaks my heart to see veterans on the street, I can't imagine how let down from the community they must feel," she says. 

The shelter has rooms specifically for those who served. Veteran Christopher Garcia currently lives at the shelter and is working on painting a new room for female veterans.

"One of the first things that we're taught in basic training is that we help each other, regardless of what branch of service - man or woman - so I'm paying the favor back that's been given to me," Garcia says. 

The program lasts 12 to 18 months, depending on the charges and the person's recovery. It's unclear at this time if van tassel's charges will get dropped.

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