Judge Robert Russell, shown with VA Secretary (Ret) Gen. Eric Shinseki
From top level, praise for veterans court; VA chief sees firsthand why Buffalo's is national model
Written by Lou Michel
April 7, 2010, Buffalo, New York (Buffalo News) -
Sitting unobtrusively in Buffalo City Veterans Treatment Court on Tuesday afternoon, he could have been just another court observer. He was anything but.
This particular observer was U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki, a retired Army general and wounded veteran of the Vietnam War. He had come to observe firsthand why the first veterans court in the country is so successful.
"I'm looking for ways I might encourage more opportunities like this," Shinseki said later at a news conference. "Forty courts have started around the country based on this model."
For City Judge Robert T. Russell Jr., who launched the veterans court in January 2008, it was another busy day in a court where veterans are given a second chance to become productive members of society and avoid a criminal record.
"I'm blessed, your honor; it's been 17 months," one veteran said of staying out of trouble with the law. "I'm grateful. I really am."
At the news conference, Russell explained that the success stems from a different mind-set in working with defendants, many of whom have gone astray after returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because of post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries or drug and alcohol abuse.
"It's therapeutic problem-solving. There isn't the conflict as in other courts between the prosecutor and defendant," Russell said. "Everyone is on the same page."
With the VA secretary standing just a few feet away, Russell seized the opportunity to thank him and his department for its support.
"I am extremely grateful for the VA. Not only are they treating veterans, but they have a staff person in the court working on veterans' benefits issues that are not an entitlement, but what they have earned," Russell said.
That tone continued with Shinseki, who as a four-star general served as Army chief of staff from June 1999 to June 2003, a period encompassing 9/11 and the early months of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"When my friends ask me why I took this job, I tell them for three reasons — to give back to the kids I sent to war, give back to those who served in Vietnam and give back to the veterans of World War II and the Korean War — those giants," he said.
Shinseki also promised that under his watch, the VA would clear up long delays that veterans encounter in seeking various services.
"Our intent and commitment in 2010 is to break the back of the backlog ... and increase services," he said.
When it was pointed out by the media that this is not the first time a VA secretary has come to Buffalo and vowed to improve processing of veterans' claims, Shinseki said, "We're a large organization, and we're talking about cultural changes. We have begun pilot programs for clearing claims."
He didn't stop at that.
"The bottom line is, it's not working, ... and this year's efforts will change that," he said, promising that he would return to Buffalo and that the conversation on this subject would be different a year from now.
Erie County Director of Veterans Services Patrick W. Welch, who was also wounded in Vietnam, said it meant a great deal that a member of President Obama's Cabinet would take the time to travel here and view the veterans court.
What it shows, Welch said, is "a commitment by this secretary to make meaningful changes."
(extracted from the Veterans for Common Sense website)