When former Sgt. Carlos Fields was charged with driving under the influence, he had two choices: Go to trial and face up to a year in jail, or enroll in a veterans treatment court where, if he completed the requirements, he could get the charges dropped.
It was an easy choice, Fields said.
And on Friday, he and former Spc. Lindsey Jones graduated from the Veterans Endeavor for Treatment and Support (VETS) Court program. Both former soldiers joined the program in early 2016.
Their graduation took place at the III Corps Headquarters at Fort Hood, Texas, and their charges were dismissed, allowing them to stay on track with work, education and mental health support provided by the program.
Both had recently transitioned from the Army but found their new challenges difficult to cope with, they said.
"My lawyer told me about the program," Fields said. "The hardest part of it was establishing that trust in the beginning."
VETS, supervised by a federal magistrate judge and the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, allows veterans with service-related mental health struggles who have committed low-level misdemeanor offenses to enter a treatment program and spare themselves a criminal record. In order to graduate, veterans must complete a rigorous program of court supervision, treatment and counseling with the Veterans Affairs Department, and mentorship from a community veteran mentor.
The Fort Hood-based VETS program -- which saw three graduates on Friday -- is part of a larger initiative for veterans treatment courts around the country.
"We especially hope to provide alternatives for criminal conviction for veterans whose military service may have contributed to their current conditions and conduct," West Texas U.S. Attorney Richard Durbin, Jr. said in a 2015 Justice Department release announcing the program. "We hope this program will lead the way for similar initiatives to develop in other federal jurisdictions near major military bases where veterans congregate."
More than 160 treatment courts have been stood up in both state and federal districts through the country, according to the Justice Department. The Fort Hood VETS court currently has eight veterans working through the program, and new applications are reviewed every other week.
Former Sgt. Carlos Fields talks about completing and graduating from the first Veterans Endeavor for Treatment and Support Court program at Fort Hood, Texas. The ceremony, which included Sen. John Cornyn, Maj. Gen. John Uberti, the deputy commanding general of III Corps and Fort Hood, and others, took place Friday. Photo Credit: Courtesy photo from the Office of Sen. John Cornyn
"Overall, for me, the program has just given me a different outlook on life," Fields said. "One of the biggest things I lost leaving the military was my identity. It helped me to see that the person I am now is just as relevant as the person I was in the military."
Fields, 35, left the Army in 2014 after 15 years in.
"I am married, I have six kids, and I was looking for a little more stability for my family," he said.
He'd felt fulfilled in the Army, he said, but once he was out, finding a new place in the world proved difficult.
"When I got that rejection letter from Walmart -- that was the sixth place I'd applied to," he said.
He self-medicated with alcohol, he said, and one night made the mistake of getting behind the wheel.
It was a similar story for Jones, 26, whose stress and anxiety were getting the best of her on active duty.
"I thought that if I could get out and focus on myself, that I could get better," she said.
But as she was preparing to ETS, she was arrested for DUI, though she later completed her discharge.
In the program, they said, they were connected with job, education and mental health support.
"You are assigned a supervisor and you're supposed to check in once a week," Fields said. "But I checked in a lot more than that."
Now both are going to college and working in the Fort Hood area, with plans to continue mental health counseling through a VA liaison.
"We'll stay in touch with him and continue to get the treatment that we need," Jones said.