Ray Alarcio has come out of the dark, both literally and figuratively.
Before he entered treatment last year for his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and alcohol addiction issues, the Santa Maria resident and combat veteran with the Marine Corps would sit at home with all the lights off, and his mother wondered why.
After extensive treatment in Los Angeles through Veterans Affairs, Alarcio says his life has been saved.
He graduated Wednesday from Veterans Court in Santa Maria along with eight other military veterans who completed a 12-month program.
Wednesday’s ceremony, attended by various community leaders, marked the first graduation ceremony for the North County Veterans Court program.
Veterans Court was implemented locally last November after Superior Court Judge Rogelio Flores approached the Department of Veteran Affairs about bringing the program to Santa Maria.
The court program offers military veterans who commit non-violent, non-serious crimes in the North County, as the result of a mental health disorder, the chance to go into a diversion program rather than jail. Graduates have their criminal charges dropped upon completion of the program. There is also a Veterans Court in Santa Barbara, which started in July.
“I thought I was the only one who was going through it,” said Alarcio after the ceremony, describing his post-combat struggles. He spoke politely, but it was apparent that discussing his military service and subsequent struggles made him uneasy.
During treatment, Alarcio met fellow veterans who understood his trials.
He is dealing with civilian life much better these days, and he encourages other veterans to seek help.
“I think a lot of vets are still hiding out,” he said.
“I don’t even know that they know there’s something wrong with them,” Alarcio added.
Flores, who presides over the North County Veterans Court in his Santa Maria courtroom, handed out “dog tags” engraved with the graduation date and “welcome home” to graduates, and congratulated each of the nine graduates with a hug as they came forward one by one. Flores thanked the veterans as a group for their service, his words filled with emotion.
Santa Barbara County sheriff’s Commander Dominick Palera, who served as a Marine, also spoke to the graduates.
“If anybody deserves a second chance, and if anybody can succeed, it’s our veterans,” he said.
The graduates represented a wide range of ages and types of military service. They had been affected by troubles including substance abuse and domestic violence.
Each of the graduates addressed those present with a few words as they stepped to the front of the room, thanking the court and partner-agency service providers for their help.
“I have a new opportunity to turn my life around,” remarked one graduate. “It’s been an amazing journey.”
Another graduate, a Navy veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, received a standing ovation after speaking at length before those gathered about his experience.
He asked that his name not be published.
The man said that he would not have gotten treatment for his PTSD if not for Veterans Court.
He said dealing with the brutalities of combat is difficult, and it has deeply affected him and many of his friends, who no longer trust people.
“They taught us how to fight. Kill or be killed. They don’t teach you how to come back,” the veteran said.
Another part of the struggle, he said, is that “you can’t get that adrenaline rush unless your life is on the line.”
He said he was grateful for the help he received through the Veterans Court program.
“I want to thank you guys because who knows where I’d be,” the man said.
Flores believes that Veterans Court has been successful in its first year in Santa Maria, although statistics are not available this early in the program as to the percentage of participants who graduate.
The first session of Veterans Court was held in Santa Maria in November 2011.
“It’s been wonderful,” Flores said, adding that there are about 50 Veterans Court cases on the court calendar.
“It’s a work in progress.”
The program, which was made possible by the passage of a state law in 2010, is a collaborative effort among Veterans Affairs, Superior Court, the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s and Public Defender’s offices, and the county’s Probation and Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services departments. There are likely several hundred veterans treatment courts across the United States, according to Flores.
Participants embark on a 12- to 18-month journey that helps them navigate the Veterans Administration to obtain the treatment they need.
“They need supervision that really the criminal justice system is not equipped to address,” Flores said, noting that many combat veterans are still suffering from PTSD and traumatic brain injury.
Many homeless people are military veterans, Flores added, and Veterans Court works to help break the cycle and keep them off the streets.
The judge said he has already witnessed progress toward wellness made by Veterans Court participants.
Last month at the first Veterans Stand Down in Santa Maria, a participant came up to Flores and said he couldn’t believe he’d landed a job.
“He did most of the work,” Flores said. “It wasn’t us.”
Veterans Court has been helpful by pointing veterans who are in a bad place toward resources they benefit from, the judge said.
“Before this court existed, it was really tough,” he added.
Frank Campo, commander of American Legion Post 56 and an Army veteran, seconded Flores’ assessment that the North County Veterans Court appears successful.
“Hopefully it’s just a model for more courts around the area,” he said.
“I think what makes it really unique is Judge Flores. That’s his niche, and he’s got compassion for these guys.”