BRADENTON -- At the opening ceremony Thursday afternoon for Manatee County Veterans Track, Judge Andrew Owens made it clear this is a courtroom with a difference.
"Everyone involved actually cares about the individual," Owens said, thanking mayors, law enforcement officers, court officers, veterans advocates and others who helped fill Courtroom 4A.
"They really want them to succeed," Owens said, referring to troubled veterans who land in court facing lower-tier crimes.
The opening ceremony, complete with an honor guard from Ellenton VFW Post 9226, followed the first two official sessions of veterans track.
Owens called two women veterans forward being assisted in their reintegration to civilian society and praised them for their progress.
"Are you still at Macy's? I am so proud of you. You are like a whole different person," Owens told one. "Keep up the good work. Good job!"
He asked another how many days she had been clean from substance abuse.
Sixty-seven days, she responded.
"I got a really good report on you," Owens said.
The ceremony was the culmination of plans made public in March, overcoming many obstacles to launch veterans track in Manatee County, including a lack of funding.
An estimated 11 percent of Manatee County's population served in uniform.
"This is a great day in Manatee County," Owens said, adding he hopes veterans track can be extended to Sarasota County.
The purpose of veterans track is to give vets, who may have post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, or other issues related to their service, "a second swing at-bat," said Harrison Reeder, chief of social work at Bay Pines VA Healthcare System.
"Veterans court is not designed to take away any of the veteran's responsibility, but to give them every opportunity to get their life back together," Reeder said.
In the past 13 years of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 2 1/2 million veterans have served, a number Reeder called "staggering."
"The problem is that men and women come back with a lot of issues," he said.
Many resources can be used to help ensure troubled vets don't fall into a cycle of repeated arrests, assistant state attorney Lon Arend said.
"It's not always an easy process," he said.
Not every veteran is a candidate for veterans track.
Those who are selected can expect, after they enter a plea, meeting in veterans track on a monthly basis.
Some might get a sanction -- time in jail -- if they fail to do their part, but others will get applause for working to turn their life around, Arend said.
Vets with no prior record who successfully complete veterans track can emerge with their case dismissed and no criminal record.
Rod Haynes, assistant public defender, also addressed the ceremonial gathering.
"This really starts when the veteran is arrested. Frequently the veteran doesn't identify themselves," Haynes said.
The public defender represents many vets who end up in the court system because they are jobless or homeless.
"Every inch of the way we are trying to focus their attention on their needs and prevent them from becoming repeat offenders, Haynes said.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter@jajones1.