Bar News - May 17, 2013
VA Justice Program Assists Court-Involved Veterans
By: Kristen Senz
NH Bar to Supplement Efforts
At any given time, Diane Levesque has about 50 pre-trial criminal defendants relying on her advice and her attendance at their court hearings.
Diane Levesque, left, director of the Veterans Justice Outreach program at the VA in Manchester, speaks with Allenstown police prosecutor Alicia Piazza before a court hearing in Hooksett.
But Levesque is not a defense attorney.
She’s the director of the Veterans Justice Outreach program at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Manchester and has led the program since its inception in January 2012. She acts as a resource for the court, assisting veterans who are pre-trial criminal defendants by explaining to prosecutors and judges what services the VA offers. A social worker with many years of experience in private practice, she also provides general information about the unique challenges court-involved veterans often face.
"I feel like I have the best job at the VA," she says. "I find it interesting; it’s energizing, and everyone is very appreciative of what I do – the vets, the lawyers and the judges."
To supplement Levesque’s work, the NH Bar Association is assisting her efforts to organize clinics where vets can access free civil legal advice and information. The Association is also working to connect Levesque with a network of volunteers to augment her work with criminal defendants.
A CLE slated for the fall will provide training for attorneys and judges about working with veterans. More than 80 members of the NH Bar have already expressed interest in the Association’s efforts.
The majority of the veterans that receive help from Levesque’s program have been diagnosed with a mental health condition, have suffered a traumatic brain injury and/or are struggling with substance abuse problems.
After two tours in Iraq with the Vermont National Guard, 172nd Armor Division, Sgt. Charles "Chuck" Wigmore returned home to Allenstown, NH, in late 2005 with a traumatic brain injury.
He sought treatment at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Manchester and began studying and training for a new career in the medical field, but an incident earlier this year threatened to derail those plans. Following a minor altercation with a neighbor, Wigmore was charged with class B misdemeanor simple assault.
"I really needed some legal representation," said Wigmore, who appeared for arraignment recently in the 6th Circuit - Hooksett Division Court with Levesque.
Wigmore was referred to Levesque through his TBI case manager at the VA. Within a few minutes of explaining his situation, "something clicked with her," he said. Levesque helped him enroll in anger management classes at the VA before his case went before a judge.
"Whenever you come into contact with the justice system, as a veteran, the court is going to order anger management," said Wigmore.
Spontaneously becoming angry or irritable, also known as hyperarousal, is one of the primary symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and can also be a side effect of TBI. According to Levesque, one in five veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have symptoms of a mental health disorder or a traumatic brain injury, and as many as one in six have a substance abuse disorder.
"Many vets have told me that the first time they started using narcotics was when they were deployed," Levesque said. "They were using as they tried to manage the stress of their experience in theater."
In recent years, these problems have landed an unprecedented number of veterans in courtrooms and jail cells.
Wigmore, 52, had no criminal record prior to the low-level assault charge. He said he couldn’t afford a lawyer and was unable to find one who would represent him for free. Because of her specialized knowledge about veterans and the VA, however, Levesque was able to effectively communicate with the prosecutor about Wigmore’s case.
"He feels really terrible about it, and I wouldn’t say that about everybody," Levesque told Allenstown police prosecutor Alicia Piazza before Wigmore’s arraignment.
Piazza, after discussing concerns about potential contact with the victim and working with Levesque to resolve them, recommended to Judge Robert Stephen that Wigmore be allowed to participate in the Merrimack County Diversion Program. If he successfully completes the program, which can last as long as 18 months, Wigmore will keep his record clean.
Wigmore said he was "thrilled" to have Levesque involved in his case. Were it not for the referral from his VA case manager, he added, he never would have known her services were available to court-involved veterans.
Examining ways the Association could assist with veterans’ legal needs is an initiative Bar President Larry Vogelman announced when he took office last June.
For more information about the VJO program and resources for homeless veterans, please visit www.va.gov/homeless/vjo.asp. To get involved in the NH Bar Association’s efforts to assist veterans, please send an email message to Vogelman.