Traditionally, graduates of Thurston County’s Veterans Court depart with a certificate, a salute from the judge, and some kind words from court staff members.
But recent graduates have received something extra: homemade quilts stitched by the women at Tumwater’s Ruby Street Quiltworks, through the Quilts of Valor Foundation.
Staci Coleman, Veterans Court coordinator, said the community has been supporting the program since it began in July 2009. Veterans Court is one of Thurston County’s therapeutic courts — like Mental Health Court, DUI Court and Drug Court — and operates through the District Court system.
The audience at graduations often includes law enforcement officers, jail staff members, people who work with program participants, housing advocates, friends and family. Coleman said the participation of the quilters is an extension of that community support.
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Two men graduated Wednesday from the program: Michael Ray and Gary Gault. Both received quilts from Ruby Street Quiltworks.
Ruby Schmitt, one of the quilters, said the quilts are made with donated time and materials, and that Quilts of Valor has donated more than 151,000 quilts since 2003.
As she presented the quilts to Ray and Gault, she said, “This quilt was stitched with the appreciation of a grateful nation.”
The connection between Veterans Court and Quilts of Valor began last year after some of the quilters heard Judge Brett Buckley, who presides over the court, speak at an event, Coleman said. The quilters asked if they could make a quilt for him, and Buckley accepted. He also invited them to Veterans Court.
They agreed to start making quilts for graduates.
To date, 39 people have competed the Veterans Court program, including three women, Coleman said.
Participants are only accepted if they have served in the U.S. military, have a mental health condition that’s connected to their military service, and the crime they committed to land in court is related to that mental health condition.
Most of the participants suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder, she said. And while they’ve had participants from the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, a vast majority served in the Army. Coleman said that’s likely owing to Thurston County’s proximity to Fort Lewis.
Entry to Veterans Court isn’t dependent on discharge status, Coleman said. Sometimes, when people begin experiencing PTSD symptoms, they act out and that can lead to a dishonorable discharge.
One current participant, a former Marine, was dishonorably discharged after he went AWOL — but he likely wouldn’t have done that if he hadn’t been experiencing PTSD, Coleman said. He’s now working to have his discharge upgraded.
“We don’t feel that an honorable discharge should be a required because they still need the help,” Coleman said.
Participants enter guilty pleas to their charges at the beginning of the program, and upon graduation the charges are often downgraded or dismissed entirely. Participants must undergo mental health treatment. When appropriate, they also must complete domestic violence or substance abuse treatment.
It’s a hard program, Coleman said. Not everyone is successful — some think it’s too much work. But most participants are thankful, and some graduates return as mentors.
“If they complete the program, no one has ever said that it’s a waste of time or it wasn’t worth the effort,” Coleman said.
During their graduation ceremonies, Ray and Gault said they were thankful for the program.
Ray said one of the best tools he learned was to reapply what he learned in the Army: that he can overcome any obstacle.
“Somehow I forgot that after I got out,” Ray said. “But I learned it again.”