Great Falls Tribune: Tester visits Great Falls Vet Court, honors Native American veterans and mentors

by Skylar Rispens

Veterans, mentors and community members gathered in the Great Falls Veterans Treatment Courtroom to honor the service of Native American veterans in the community and hear testimony of the program’s participants.

“Native Americans have risen above the challenges to defend our nation with pride and honor,” said Cascade County District Judge Greg Pinski. “Now among the 574 federally recognized tribes, each with their own culture, traditions and beliefs, military service remains remarkably constant.”

Sen. Jon Tester was among those in attendance as well and announced that the courtroom would be dedicated to honor Rodger McConnell and Joe Parsetich.

Pinski told the crowded court room that there are currently 31,000 Native Americans serving on active duty and there are more than 140,000 living Native American veterans in the United States today.

Despite their commitment to service, Pinski pointed out that Native American service members are more likely to be homeless and have less access to Veterans Affairs benefits, among other challenges.

Pinski founded the Veterans Treatment Court in Great Falls over six years ago as a way to help military veterans come back from crime, addiction and mental illness.

Three participants of the local Veterans Treatment Court shared their testimony on returning home after their service and how the opportunities from the specialized court shaped their lives for the better.

“I made some poor choices in my life, as many of us have,” said Jerome Lambert, a Veterans Treatment Court participant who is in the fifth phase of the program.

“If it weren’t for this program, I’d be in prison,” continued Lambert.

Lambert said that the court has highly influenced his life and made him stronger by helping him learn how to deal with his demons on the road to recovery. Since being involved in the local Veterans Treatment Court Lambert has become an advocate to voice concerns about the lack of programs to support Native American veterans.

“Montana does not have enough programs to support both reservation and urban Indians to support chemical dependency and mental health for the Native American veterans,” said Lambert.

“We as veterans do not receive the help we need and deserve until we are in trouble with the law,” continued Lambert. “I am one of the few who have gotten the help I need and I thank you again Judge Pinski.”

Veteran Brian Tucker shared his experience with drug abuse and how it impacted his relationship with his child. When he admitted he needed help, he explained that he moved in with his parents to detox.

“I was later arrested at their house because of felony warrants,” said Tucker. “Which was a blessing in disguise. I had to face my problems.”

While in Veterans Treatment Court, Tucker drove from Browning to Great Falls, over 200 miles round trip, at least five times a week to complete breathalyzer tests and other appointments. During that time, he was referred to Volunteers of America, which helped him gain his independence and move to an apartment in Great Falls. The Veterans Treatment Court has helped him overcome his struggles with PTSD, anxiety and depression.

He said that he is now at a place in his life where his older daughter is interested in living with him next year. He is also working on mending his relationship with his youngest daughter.

“If I was high, I wouldn’t even be in their life,” said Tucker.

Veterans Treatment Court participant AJ White Cloud shared his struggles with addiction after being discharged after being injured. He eventually wound up in prison, where he decided to focus on himself and his recovery. He found himself in the Veterans Treatment Court.

“I’m learning, I’m finally coming out of my shell,” said White Cloud. “I’m finally becoming me without the addiction controlling my life.”

White Cloud, like many other veterans, struggled to with his transition to become a civilian again.

“It’s a lot easier just to admit that you have a problem and start over. Now, I’m doing that,” said White Cloud. “This program gives you the tools, this is our boot camp for our life.”

White Cloud performed a traditional dance, the first verse of the song was meant to honor Tester for his commitment to veterans in Montana. Lambert, Tucker and White Cloud joined together at the end of the ceremony and presented the senator with a quilt as well.

Tester currently serves as a ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. In 2018 President Trump signed Tester’s Veterans Treatment Court Improvement Act into law. The legislation added 50 additional Veterans Justice Outreach Specialists across the country to work with Veterans Treatment Courts and help provide access to Veterans Affairs services.

“Judge Pinski and the veterans in this area have done such a marvelous job setting this drug treatment court up and it’s saving lives and saving money with people not being in prison. So that’s a success story all the way around,” said Tester.

Tester announced that the Great Falls Veterans Treatment Court will be dedicated to honor Joe Parsetich and the late Rodger McConnell. The pair are well known advocates for veterans and founding mentors with the Great Falls Veterans Treatment Court.