Matt Stiner comes from a family in which military service is a tradition. His father was a Marine, and many of his other male relatives had been in the military, as well.
So when Stiner got out of the Marines and re-entered civilian life after seeing combat in the Iraq War, he had an advantage many veterans don't -- a large support network of family members to help him with the transition. There was no underestimating the importance of that, he said.
"It was kind of surreal when I got out," he said, recalling the sense of alienation he felt as he tried to resume a lifestyle that didn't involve the threat of violence on a routine basis. Stiner's roommate had been killed in action, and the trauma of that loss -- and other memories -- continued to haunt him.
But with the help of his family and others, Stiner was able to make that transition. He wound up graduating from Oklahoma State University with a political science degree, then earned a prestigious $30,000 Truman scholarship and is now pursuing a graduate degree at the University of Oklahoma's Tulsa campus. He even served a stint in the administration of former Mayor Kathy Taylor as her liaison with the veterans' community.
Still, Stiner is painfully aware that many other veterans aren't able to ease back into civilian life the same way he was. Stiner said he could only watch as two of the men he served with internalized the difficulties they were experiencing and wound up with severe substance abuse problems -- one became addicted to methamphetamine, while the other became an alcoholic.
"There's a macho mentality in the military that makes people unwilling to ask for help," he said.
Recognizing the disconnect between the groups that are there to help and the people they are designed to serve, Stiner helped initiate a program in 2008 that created a special veterans' court in Tulsa County. Any veteran who faced a county charge would be identified and placed on a special docket, where he or she would have the opportunity go through an alternative sentencing and be referred to a number of veterans groups for help.
Now, Stiner said, a similar program is being set up in Tulsa's municipal courts system.
Councilor G.T. Bynum, who began meeting with Stiner in September to plan the program after the Marine veteran approached him with the idea, said any veteran who is arrested on a city charge will be placed on a special docket that will be heard on the last Friday of every month.
"The judges will work with them to defer any sort of fines or sentences based on their participation in certain programs," Bynum said, adding that representatives of organizations designed to provide financial, health, mental health and substance abuse assistance to veterans will be on hand to offer their help.
"It's sort of the broken windows theory," Bynum said. "The idea is that if you can prevent the little things, you prevent the big things from happening later on."
Bynum said he was amazed at the reception the idea for the program received when he and Stiner approached municipal courts officials.
"Honestly, it was refreshingly easy because everyone involved realized the impact it could have for good," he said, crediting Judge Burk Bishop with putting together the logistics of the program.
Bynum said one of the most appealing aspects of the program is that it doesn't create any additional costs.
Stiner believes there are plenty of veterans who might benefit from the new program. He said he recently examined data from the Tulsa County jail and discovered that between Jan. 1, 2010 and Oct. 21, 2010, 300 veterans were arrested and went through the municipal courts system, where they faced a total of 733 charges. Most of the charges were relatively minor, he said -- drunk driving, public intoxication or possession of drug paraphernalia -- but serve as a warning sign of someone having trouble adjusting to civilian life.
The county program already has made quite an impact, he said, pointing to the recent example of a young veteran who had been taken into custody after turning a gun on himself. Stiner said within hours of the man's detainment, he had been put in touch with a variety of groups that provide services to veterans, and he now is enrolled in a health care program, soon will begin receiving a disability check from the Veterans Administration and likely will enroll in college.
Stiner said the municipal courts program is scheduled to go into effect by March 25.
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