When he retired from the Army after 22 years, Green Beret Radoslaw “Ski” Szczepanski was a decorated senior sergeant who’d trained domestic and allied forces around the world. Those who knew him well joked he should be placed in a case with a sign on it that says, “Break glass in case of war.”
Ski knew combat. Life after service, though, turned out to be something for which he wasn’t so prepared — especially bearing the deep physical and emotional scars of war.
“I came from a dark place. I was told that I was broken. That I will always remain broken. And that there is no cure for me,” said Szczepanski, whose 80% disabled rating was changed to 100% after his retirement. “When I came out, I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
He turned to alcohol and prescription drugs, and ultimately landed behind bars for assault.
Two years ago, he was accepted into the local Veterans Trauma Court, a program for vets who've been charged with certain misdemeanors and low-level felonies. The program aims to address the underlying trauma and addiction issues so many veterans struggle with, and that often lead them to commit crimes.
Thursday, Szczepanski donned his dress uniform and stood before a group gathered in a room at the El Paso County Judicial Building, graduating from the program he credits for pulling him from that dark place.
“Now I have a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Szczepanski, 55.
Colorado Springs’ 4th Judicial District’s Veterans Trauma Court marked its 10th anniversary with a ceremony that graduated four participants, including Szczepanski, from the intensive monitoring and treatment program meant to serve as an alternative to incarceration.
Those who are accepted into VTC must adhere to a strict schedule of counseling and treatment appointments, court appearances and intensive supervision as they progress through the program’s four phases, which usually take around 18 months to complete.
“You can’t come to one of these (graduations) or talk with anybody on our team without getting the feeling that we are true believers,” Judge David Shakes, who oversees the court, told Thursday's crowd. “We are convinced that this model works, particularly for veterans, but also people in the high-risk and high-need category. If you listen to us long enough you’ll be committed as well.”
Shakes said that, in a decade, the program has helped launch almost 400 veterans “off to a different life.”
“This is one of our smaller graduations. It’s usually six, eight, 10 people. We’re bringing in people all the time,” he said.
Participants progress through the phases based on how well they’re fulfilling the requirements, which include paying court costs and fees, participating in therapy, and passing regular drug and alcohol screenings.
Based on a model founded in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2004, the local program is one of more than 300 nationwide, and in 2016 the National Association of Drug Court Professionals named it a national peer training court.
In addition to steady oversight, it includes quieter incentives that can help encourage long-term change, said coordinator Kisten Born.
“The judicial system for a couple hundred years has been really good at hitting people with a stick. We’re trying to use carrots,” she said. “If you came and watched on a docket day, first thing we do is call up ... men and women who did everything they were supposed to do since they came into court last. We do a drawing for a $25 gift card. That’s kind of the thing about problem-solving courts is doing things that are different, using positive reinforcement. It helps behavior change.”
Recidivism rates among those who’ve graduated from the program is around 18%, less than half that of traditional court systems, Shakes said.
Born attributes the success to the team of people committed to making it work — those from the courts, the health care and veterans communities and Colorado Springs as a whole.
“There’s a team of people surrounding them that are reminding them about the things they need to do,” she said.
For graduate JohnTaylor Barclay, 29, those things now include plans for a life he once thought was out of reach.
“I’ve been looking forward to this day since I first started the VTC program last December," he said Thursday, addressing the crowd. "I know it’s kind of weird me saying this, but without me committing the crime I did, I would not have received the help I have been getting for the past year. Before I got into trouble, I was on a dark road, leading myself into a hole that I would never be able to see out of again. And ultimately, I would probably not be alive right now."