After serving in the Army for five years, Cape May County resident Tim Letts got injured, developed post-traumatic stress disorder and was discharged. That’s when things started going downhill.
“I got out and thought that I needed to escape my reality,” Letts said. “I never wanted to get out, so I started doing drugs to mask the pain, and eventually that caught up with me. It catches up with pretty much everybody.”
He picked up charges for drugs and forgery, he said. But then, as his case started winding its way through the court system, he met county Assistant Prosecutor Mike Mazur and Prosecutor’s Office Lt. Joe Landis, who run the county’s Veterans Diversion Program.
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The statewide program, which took effect in 2017 after it was signed into law by former Gov. Chris Christie, gives veterans with low-level, nonviolent offenses an opportunity to have their charges dismissed by participating in therapy and treatment and connecting with a mentor. South Jersey law enforcement officials say it’s an opportunity for a vulnerable population who might fall through the cracks of the justice system to address any mental health and substance abuse issues they may have in an effort to move forward.
Letts, 30, is one of three graduates from the Cape May program; there are currently three people enrolled and two more about to be admitted, officials said. Cumberland County has two active participants. Atlantic County has the highest participation rate in South Jersey, with 14 enrolled in the program and three graduates, court records show.
The Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office declined to be interviewed for this story.
In Cumberland County, officials are working to get the word out about their program, Trial Chief Carl W. Cavagnaro said.
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“We’re trying to do everything possible to have as wide a net as possible,” Cavagnaro said, explaining that when summonses are issued, there’s a box for law enforcement to check off if the person is a veteran, and the judge for the Criminal Justice Process Court asks everyone who appears whether they served in the military.
“I think it’s important because we want to give back to people that donated their time and possibly put their life in danger for the country,” he said. “They’re veterans and they should get help, especially if there’s a nexus between their current criminal problems, mental illness and a disability. It seems to me an appropriate program to give back to these people.”
There are three requirements for acceptance into the program, Mazur said. An applicant must first be a veteran with an honorable, general or other-than-honorable discharge, they have to have an eligible offense — generally any third- or fourth-degree offense, but this varies by county — and a mental health diagnosis such as anxiety, depression or PTSD.
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Once accepted, officials tailor the program to each individual’s needs depending on their struggles with mental health or substance abuse and the nature of the offense, Mazur said.
Connecting all three South Jersey programs is John Walter, a veteran’s justice outreach specialist. He works as a liaison between officials and the participants, making sure veterans get linked to care, then tracking their progress and reporting back to officials, he said.
In Atlantic and Cape May counties, Walter is present at status hearings, where veterans go before Superior Court Judge Bernard E. DeLury Jr. for regular check-ins and get “a little pep talk or scolding depending on what they needed,” Walter said.
Because of issues that veterans struggle with, like PTSD, they can come into contact with law enforcement more often than the average person, he said. The program can help stabilize their mental health and get them treatment.
“It’s a way for them to address their mental health and address that charge at the same time,” Walter said. “It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card. A lot of the time, the veterans do more and spend more time than they would have if they just would have taken the time.”
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It’s a win-win situation, Walter said, because the veteran gets the treatment they need, the courts don’t have another person in jail and, often, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs picks up the cost of treatment.
DeLury, the presiding judge for the criminal division of the Atlantic and Cape May Vicinage, said he acts as an integrated part of the person’s diversion and, hopefully, recovery. He asks participants what branch they served in, their military occupational specialty or rating, their rank and where they were stationed.
“I think the Veterans Diversion Program helps a veteran who has found himself in the cross hairs of the criminal justice system identify what he’s done wrong, be truthful about it and then seek the help that he’ll need in order to avoid future difficulties,” he said.
The program can run from six months to two years, but the average completion time in Cape May County is about a year, Landis said. But if it doesn’t go smoothly, officials are there to help.
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“If they should happen to relapse, or fall off because they lose track of what’s going on and stop going to treatment for a little bit, we don’t just discard anybody from the program,” Landis said. “We bring them in and kind of evaluate what’s going on with the VA and we try to get them back on track.”
Conversely, if participants gain traction and “lighten their pack” — cooperate with treatment, get a job, reunite with family, whatever they had difficulty with before — they can meet less frequently as they progress, DeLury said.
Since graduating, Letts bought a new car and drives for Uber. He can go to the gun range or shoot his bow and arrow, things he wouldn’t be able do if he hadn’t been through the program.
“There are still things in my life that I like to do that otherwise I definitely wouldn’t be able to, at least not for a few years and expungement,” Letts said. The program “allowed me to step back into life with a purpose, and that purpose has just flowed over to maintain the stability that the program has allowed me to find.”
Several businesses in Atlantic City, including casinos, restaurants and entertainment, are offering discounts and giveaways to active or retired military.
At noon Monday, the city will hold a Veterans Day ceremony at Brown's Memorial Park, 135 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Speakers will include Assemblyman John Armato, who served in the Air Force from 1967 to 1971.
Atlantic County Veterans Museum
The Atlantic County Veterans Museum will be open Monday as an extension of hours.
At 10:30 a.m., The Veterans of Foreign Wars post 6964 is hosting a parade and service in honor of Veterans Day. The parade will step off at 26 Street and Brigantine Avenue and will continue down to the Veterans Memorial at 32nd Street.
During the service, guest speakers will include State Sen. Chris Brown, who will who will present a proclamation from the state local to World War II veterans Ralph Williams and Charles Newkirk, and Brian Weiner, senior vice commander of the New Jersey VFW.
Egg Harbor City
At 6:30 p.m. Monday, American Legion Rudolph Elmer Post #158 and Auxiliary will host a Veterans Day ceremony.
State Sen. Chris Brown, who served in the Army from 1987 to 2009, will be the guest speaker.
36 U.S. military veterans and current residents of Meadowview Nursing and Rehabilitation Center will be honored by the Atlantic County Veterans Advisory Board and County Executive Dennis Levinson for recognition of their service.
The ceremony will include a presentation of certificates, color guard, patriotic songs and readings and light refreshments for invited attendees.
From 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, volunteer dentists, assistants and hygienists at Brickworks Dental will offer dental services to veterans in need, as part of Veterans Smile Day.
Dr. Deryck Pham, a U.S. Navy veteran, began Veterans Smile Day at his practice seven years ago to serve veterans who do not qualify for dental care through their VA benefits. The event will take place at 5429 Harding Highway, #101. For more information, call 609-625-0505.
At 11 a.m. Monday, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 220 will host a Veterans Day ceremony at Memorial Park. A luncheon will be served after at the VFW post at 1209 Route 50.
A United States flag retirement and disposal ceremony will take place on Monday, Nov. 11., for Veterans Day at 811 Darmstadt Avenue at 3 p.m.
At noon, Shore Medical Center will honor veterans with a ceremony at Shore Medical Center Park along Bay Avenue.
As part of the event, members of the community can submit the names of friends or family members who have served in the military. Each person submitted will be honored with a flag that will be placed on the lawn at Shore, which will remain there until Nov. 15.
Stockton University will host a week of veterans events, sponsored by the university and the school's Office of Military and Veterans Services.
- Nov. 8 from 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m.: Veterans Day Celebration in the Campus Center Grand Hall followed by lunch in the Board of Trustees Room.
- Nov. 9 at 7:30 p.m.: Free Veterans Day concert from the Bay Atlantic Symphony. Stockton University student veteran George Galesky will be the guest conductor for "Stars and Stripes Forever." At the Stockton University Performing Arts Center. The event is free, but tickets are required. To reserve tickets, call the Stockton PAC at 609-652-9000 or visit stocktonpac.org.
All events are open to the public.
CAPE MAY COUNTY
American Legion Post #331 and the Borough of Avalon will host a Veterans Day ceremony at 11 a.m.
The ceremony will take place at Veterans Plaza at 21st Street and Dune Drive. Avalon resident and World War II veteran Frank D'Elia will be honored, as he celebrates his 100th birthday.
American Legion Post #331 Commander Tom McCullough will host the event, which will include a presentation of wreaths, a rifle salute and music from the Seven Mile Singers. There also will be a post-ceremony open house at Stephen C. Ludlam Post #331 at 11617 Second Ave., Stone Harbor.
At 11 a.m. Saturday, Lower Township will host a community Veterans Day Parade.
The parade will step off at the Villas Volunteer Fire Department at 1619 Bayshore Road and will travel south, ending at Township Hall.
Members of the Coast Guard, local veterans, high school marching bands, fire department and community groups will participate in the parade.
At 10 a.m. Monday, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5941 will host a service to honor living veterans who have served and are now serving our nation.
The service will be held at the North Wildwood Veterans Monument at New York and Spruce avenues.
At 11 a.m., Ocean City will host its annual Veterans Day ceremony at the Tabernacle at 550 Wesley Ave.
The event will honor all men and women who have served in the military and will include music, a memorial wreath placing by the Ocean City Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion posts and a keynote speech from Lance Cpl. Rickey R. Arce.
Sea Isle City
Ceremony 11 a.m. Monday at Veterans Park, 4501 Park Road. South Jersey Quilts of Valor will present local veterans with handmade quilts.
At 10 a.m. Friday, the Cumberland Celebrates Our Veterans event will take place at the NJ Veterans Memorial Home at 524 NW Blvd. The event will honor and support servicemen and women. Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae will give opening remarks, followed by a joint news conference with several county service organizations about available services within the county.
At 9:30 a.m. Monday, a military mural will be dedicated in Downtown Vineland. The mural will be at the mini-park at Landis Avenue and the Boulevard. Artist George Perez created the mural, which honors members of all five military branches, as well as veterans and prisoners of war.
The mural project was commissioned by the Vineland Downtown Improvement District and Main Street Vineland, and has been publicly funded with grants from the Cumberland County Cultural & Heritage Commission, the Department of State, Thrive South Jersey, BB&T Bank and Ace Hardware.
Little Egg Harbor Township
The township will dedicate its new Veterans Park at 10 a.m. Monday at the park on Radio Road in Mystic Island.
At 9:45 a.m. Monday, the Ocean County Veterans Day parade will travel down Main Street from the Toms River Shopping Center on Route 37 to Washington Street.
A post-parade ceremony will take place in front of Town Hall and will feature speakers and guests.