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Oklahoma veterans diverted from prison with therapy, treatment

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OKLAHOMA CITY --  There are more than 330,000 veterans in Oklahoma.

Transition back to civilian life is a difficult one for a number of veterans each year.

There is an alternative for vets who find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

E4 Specialist Todd Steffens did a nine month tour in Afghanistan.

He came back with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), addicted to meth, and eventually earned a 72-day 'tour' in the Canadian County Jail. The charge: drugs.

"He went overseas and everything changed," said Todd Steffens' wife, Shauna.

Steffens signed up to risk it all. He trained and sacrificed and fought, and when he came home, something was different. He was different.

"You get used to being on that hair trigger every day," said Steffens. "It's hard getting transitioned back."

It was a  similar story for Senior Airman Kelly King.

The U.S. Air Force left her with PTSD, military sexual trauma, and severe anxiety.

Then, after her honorable medical discharge, King got a criminal charge for forgery.

"I was so happily married. Had two kids. Everything looked perfect... until I ended up in jail," King remembered. "It was really tough the few hours I was in jail and my world crashed down."

Tarra Gensler was discharged from the army in 2010 and later arrested. Her charge was dealing meth.

"We put our lives on the line for this country. We signed on the dotted line and were willing to sacrifice everything to protect this country; to protect the people we love and people we've never even met," Gensler said.

E5 Sergeant Matthew Pason was deployed for 18 months with the Oklahoma Army National Guard. He came home with depression and an addiction.

"I started drinking to try and make me sleep well, and try to make me feel normal like I was," Pason said.

Pason was charged with DUI.

They are all enrolled in the Oklahoma County Veterans Diversion Program, one-of-a-kind, self-help, group-therapy treatment.

The program is intense; a year or more of weekly sessions with a huge pay-off for those who graduate.

The veterans meet every Friday at the Oklahoma County Courthouse.

When they commit to getting healthy, their criminal charges are erased.

Oklahoma County DA David Prater launched the program three years ago, keeping hundreds of vets out of prison.

It is not a hand out. It's a hand up.

"It's a way for veterans to come here, get their honor back, and be able to still be contributing members to society like they want," said Sergeant Chuck Loughlin.

Loughlin deployed four times: twice to Kosovo, Kuwait and Iraq. He works at the public defenders office now, but ended up on the wrong side of the law back in 2006. He was charged with DUI.

Loughlin got a deferred sentence because of his status as a vet.

He works as a 'Tribune' now - a mentor for the troops still working to get their lives back on track.

"A lot of guys, especially when it comes to drugs, they just need a little push to get going in the right direction," Loughlin said. "They already have a good moral compass, it just gets a little screwy with things that happen in their life."

The Veterans Diversion program is a second chance for american military vets who have lost their way, who earned a do-over years before when they enlisted to fight and die for the rest of us here at home.

There is an application process for the program for interested vets facing a criminal charge.

If a vet fails out of the program, their charges can be re-filed.

 

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