By Kate Raddatz

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – When Charles King first entered the Ramsey County Veterans Treatment Court two years ago, he suffered severe mental health issues and faced a year behind bars for domestic abuse and disorderly conduct charges.

“I remember you told me ‘If I let you know what I’m like, you won’t like me,’” judge Judith Tilsen said.

Over time, King’s mental barriers broke down.

“I said, ‘I have a hunch you’re a really likable guy, you’re just hiding it,’” Tilsen said. “You’ve decided to show it not only to your mentor, Jim, but to the rest of us.”

King was one of four veterans to graduate from the Ramsey County Veterans Treatment Court on Thursday. The program, established in 2013, helps veterans in the criminal justice system break the cycle of substance abuse, illegal activity and mental illness.

“The biggest thing here is the support system that the program offers,” graduate Michael Husnick said. “It’s critical. It almost forces support on you.”

Part of that support comes from pairing participants with other veterans as mentors.

“Marine Corps boot camp was nothing compared to this,” one mentor said. “It was a struggle sometimes, but it was good for me and it was really good for them.”

Graduation means not only the end of the program for King, but a fresh start.

Tilsen, along with the blessing of the victim in the case, cleaned King’s criminal slate.

“It definitely was hard to do, and it’s going to be an ongoing battle, but now I know how I need to face it,” King said.

The program lasts a minimum of nine months to a year.

A statewide study showed that veterans who got help through a court drug program showed gains in employment, educational achievement and home ownership.

Kate Raddatz