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Setting an example Buffalo's Veterans Treatment Court is serving as a national model

Most Americans would agree that we owe veterans a huge debt of gratitude. For those returning from fighting for our freedom and having difficulty readjusting to society, that gratitude should be expressed by finding avenues for them to navigate back to family and friends.

Buffalo City Judge Robert T. Russell Jr.'s Veterans Treatment Court represents such an avenue, and is one that should be repeated on a nationwide scale.

The court is designed to help former military personnel stay on the right path and stay out of prison. It uses common sense and innovation, pairing veterans guilty of nonviolent felony or misdemeanor offenses with volunteer veteran mentors. This court is a lifeline for veterans who understandably may be having a difficult time returning to "normal society" after a harrowing experience.

It's no wonder that Veterans Treatment Court has been repeated in 10 other communities nationwide, and has prompted three states to pass laws aimed at encouraging the creation of veterans courts. Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., and Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., are working to get federal funding to help that along.

Instead of reinventing the wheel, these folks are looking at Buffalo and the successful outcomes accomplished by this court. Russell and several other Buffalo-area officials earned the praise heaped upon them by the House Veterans Affairs Committee during a recent round-table discussion. But beyond praise, action is required on a nationwide basis to replicate a program that is working, despite some criticism of the idea of special courts.

Countless veterans are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with wounds that go far deeper than what is perceptible by the human eye. Those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or drug and alcohol addiction, and who get into trouble because of that, now have recourse to a judicial system that includes not just judgment but understanding.

Those who may have been living on the streets, separated from family and friends, also have an avenue to pick themselves up and mend those relationships. Russell, in an interview with The News, talked about the 120 veterans who have entered the rehabilitation program through the court here -- and the fact that only five have been kicked out, and none of the 18 graduates have been rearrested. Instead, they are either employed or pursuing further education.

The Veterans Treatment Court represents an innovative approach to serving our veterans. Rep. Steve Buyer of Indiana said to Russell, "You win my 'wow' award." It's deserved.

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