BRADENTON -- A community effort to support creating a veterans court in Manatee County appears to be reaching critical mass.
Almost 30 activists turned out Thursday to hear Patrick Diggs, a veterans justice outreach coordinator for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, say community support in Manatee is unique. Many times, the drive to establish veterans court comes exclusively from within the court system, he said.
"I think you will see a coordinated effort to treat veterans in Manatee County pretty doggone soon," Diggs said, "or in six months, you will still be meeting and nothing gets done."
For the first time, public defender Laurence Eger attended one of the meetings.
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To succeed, the program will need to have sufficient resources, he said.
"There is the will, but do we have the resources? To put it bluntly: 'Put your money where your mouth is,'" Eger said. "Let's make this a real program."
Eger also questioned statistics presented by Diggs showing 572 veterans arrested in the 12th Judicial Circuit in 2014. Of those, 438 were in Sarasota and 134 in Manatee County.
"I think you have bad information to start with," Eger said, adding it appeared the number of veterans arrested in Manatee County was underreported.
Diggs agreed the estimate could be flawed, depending on whether veterans identify themselves and the training of those screening the inmates.
He urged the committee not to become discouraged and to start "low and slow."
To be successful, the right judge and right assistant state attorney will need to help veterans find their way through their legal problems and into treatment for issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, substance abuse and mental illness, Diggs said.
"Whatever we develop has to be based on the resources we have here, and the veterans population here," he said.
To date, almost 3 million American men and women have served in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and 300,000 suffer from PTSD.
Another 320,000 have traumatic brain injury and only about half of those have sought help for their injuries.
"We have the moral obligation as a society to help the veterans and their families," said Javier Cordova, one of those attending the meeting in the Manatee County Administration Building.
The unnamed committee will meet next from 10 a.m. to noon May 28 in the Manatee County Administration Building.
For more information Call Patti Durham, VetCorps prevention coordinator, at 941-748-4501, ext. 3490.
James A. Jones Jr., Herald reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.