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Washington County Attorney's Office launches alternative court program for troubled military veterans

Washington County Attorney Pete Orput speaks Monday at the Washington County Government Center in Stillwater where his office unveiled a program to help rehabilitate combat veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder instead punishing them criminally. Bulletin photo by Jon Avise1 / 2
Hector Matascastillo, an Army Ranger and Minnesota Army National Guard veteran, was involved in an armed-standoff with police after he returned from a tour of duty in Iraq in 2004. He is now a social worker and veterans advocate. Bulletin photo by Jon Avise2 / 2

Still struggling with the stresses of war that resulted from a career as a highly-trained Army Ranger, Hector Matascastillo didn't want to get better. He says he wanted to die.

The veteran of multiple deployments stood on his snowy Lakeville lawn on Jan. 24, 2004 with guns in hand, squaring off with police in an armed stand-off that saw him facing up to 45 years in prison.

As he came home to fire engine escorts and community recognition, Matascastillo was in the throes of post-traumatic stress disorder--though he wasn't diagnosed until after his encounter with police -- a condition that a 2008 study estimated afflicts roughly 20 percent of the combat veterans deployed in recent wars.

"I had become someone I didn't want to be," he said.

But instead of a felony conviction and years behind bars, the legal system threw Matascastillo a lifeline, considerably reducing the charges against him to a gross misdemeanor and allowing him to seek treatment for his post-combat mental disorder.

On Monday, Matascastillo -- now a 39-year-old psychotherapist who works primarily with troubled veterans -- was in Stillwater as Washington County Attorney Pete Orput announced the launch of a program designed to help other combat veterans unable to cope when they return home.

Washington County's Veterans Program will divert combat veterans from traditional criminal court and lay out a strict court-monitored treatment and rehabilitation plan aimed at aiding a population often beset by drug and alcohol abuse and mental illness.

Qualifying veterans will get treatment for chemical abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder and be partnered with a mentor -- someone whom Orput, himself a former Marine, said will also be a veteran -- to work through the issues that led them into the criminal justice system.

"And if you do the hard work, and you succeed ... and if it's a less than go-to-prison felony, then we're willing to call it even" and throw out the criminal charges, Orput said. "That's the redemption."

John Baker, a Maplewood attorney and former Marine who specializes in representing veterans, was involved with Orput's office in launching the veterans' justice program. Baker said there has been an ignorance from some in the courtroom to the issues returning veterans face. The Washington County program -- pushed by Orput since his election as county attorney in 2010 -- and a similar program in Hennepin County recognize the unique challenges combat troops face as they return from deployment.

"We don't leave any troops on the battlefield," Baker said. "That's what this is about."

Local law enforcement will identify veterans, Orput said, and officials in the county attorney's office will then screen potential candidates for the program. Without the effort, he said, men and women who served in combat and find themselves before a judge often slip by without seeking help.

"We've trained these guys so well to be supermen and to be tough guys," Orput said. "They're really, really reluctant to say, 'I need help. I'm suffering and I need help.'"