It had been years since Don Miller had seen combat. Yet the north Overland Park native and U.S. Army veteran faced a seemingly endless number of issues after serving overseas: post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, mistrust and extreme anger and frustration with all that seemed so wrong with the world.
But Miller had a family to raise, a loving and supportive wife and a willing heart to soldier through his suffering and find new hope again. After more than a year of treatment, he proudly stood before his fellow veterans Wednesday afternoon in District Courtroom 14 at the Johnson County Courthouse: A graduate of the county’s Veterans Treatment Court program.
Launched in January 2016, Johnson County’s Veterans Treatment Court — the first in the state — identifies veterans in the criminal justice system and provides them the option for treatment and supervision in lieu of jail time.
Miller is one of five veterans who completed Veterans Treatment Court this year, and one of 21 total graduates of the two-year-old program. His word to describe his experience: Redemption.
“I really did not feel like there was going to be any light at the end of my tunnel,” he said. “I really felt like, coming in as a combat veteran, I went from a hero to a zero. And I thought there was no way to ever get back to being a hero, whether it be in the eyes of society or in the eyes of my own wife and children.”
He used a crisp $20 bill to demonstrate his point: No matter how crumpled the bill gets, it’s still worth $20. Likewise, no matter how life “sullies our minds, souls, beliefs,” humans still have value.
“I thank God every day for Veterans Court and everybody,” Miller said, thanking multiple people, including his mentor, Frank Neal, probation officers and staff at Veterans Affairs as well as Johnson County Mental Health for encouraging him.
‘More issues than a magazine subscription’
Judge Timothy McCarthy of the 10th Judicial District of Kansas, who helped start the program in January 2016, takes a close look at each individual veterans’ case, including treatment, counseling and recommendations from medical professionals.
Miller’s case seemed especially difficult.
“He had as much on his plate as anybody,” McCarthy said, “not only the combat issues and the other issues that guys in our program have, but legal, financial, family, medical, dental, just one thing after another. But he didn’t let those stop him in the program. Everything he had to deal with — which was a lot — he soldiered through.”
Miller had served in Iraq from 2002 to 2006, completing overseas tours in Ramadi and Fallujah, the latter known as the site of a month-long battle in 2004, arguably the bloodiest battle fought by American and Iraqi military.
“When I got into the program, I had more issues than a magazine subscription, and I didn’t really have a very positive outlook on life,” Miller said. His family had serious health issues, and due to his struggles, his children were temporarily placed in foster care. “I had that mind state of all is lost. I really made some poor decisions and there’s nothing I can do to fix that.
“But Veterans Court really stepped in and restored my faith in humanity,” he added. “They’ve really shown me sincere true empathy and really took some of those sorrows that I was carrying around, some of those burdens, off my back.”
Miller said he plans to “pay it forward” by helping other veterans in the program.
“They did a big turnaround for him,” said his wife, Angela Miller, adding that it may not be an easy road after the program. “What we were going through and somewhat still are, it seemed hopeless before this program. But after being in it for some time, he has a lot of team members by his side.
“Don’t doubt Veterans Treatment Court. It’s amazing.”