A day after Memorial Day, four young combat veterans stood one at a time at the front of the law school auditorium for what might otherwise seem a mundane court procedure.

Bill Furnas' public defender, Webb Bancroft, called up his case first, CR17 995, and asked the court to let Furnas withdraw his guilty pleas to charges that could have gotten him locked up for 3½ years.

Then, Deputy Lancaster County Attorney Chris Seifert moved to dismiss the case.

"Any objection to that, Mr. Bancroft?" Lancaster County District Judge John Colborn asked.

"Not at all," Bancroft said.

And the judge dismissed it to a roar of applause from about 100 well-wishers.

Mike Sanders, Ryan Sharp and Corry Starks came next. Sanders smiling big. Starks wiping at his eyes.

With that, the three U.S. Army vets and one Marine Corps vet became the first graduates of the Lancaster County Veterans Treatment Court, started two years ago in an effort to get returning veterans who have gotten into trouble on the right path.

To get in, participants must be combat vets, with little or no record before their service ended, who were honorably discharged and have been diagnosed with PTSD or a traumatic brain injury.

Five more vets are going through the program. One other dropped out.

At Tuesday's ceremony, Colborn, who presides over veterans court, said court usually is an adversarial system, but in treatment court they're all on the same team. And it's been a great team effort.

"We don't always agree, but we get where we need to be," he said.

Sharp said when he was first approached about the program, it was everything that he had wished for, "but I had to go to jail first to get to it."

He said if he'd had the kind of help and support he had in veterans court when he was coming out of the Army, he likely wouldn't have been standing there.

Furnas said he probably wouldn't have made it through the first three months if it wasn't for Tony Conell, the initial coordinator of the program. It was a rough start, he said.

He thanked Conell and the judges, Colborn and Robert Otte, who he said weren't easy but were fair.

"That's about all you can ask for going through this process," Furnas said.

Sanders said he thinks he wants to keep being a mentor at the VA clinic even though he's done with court.

Starks said he wants to, too.

"Police scraped me out of the gutter," he said.

The help he's gotten in the past two years has changed his life, Starks said, and he knows now he has people who support him. His family had come to Lincoln from California, Colorado and Hawaii for the ceremony.

"I found out that all this is about is connections with people," he said. "We don't have to jump on grenades by ourselves."

Lincoln attorney Jim Cada, who pushed to get veterans court going, said he gets a lot of great feelings "because of what we've done" and looks forward to doing more for veterans. He'd like to see the program expand to include DUIs, something they're currently looking into.

Cada said the goal is to assist veterans and their families in addressing behavioral health issues and reestablishing law-abiding, productive lives.

"And I know that each one of you has got that in mind," he said. "And I'm very proud that you've done so well."

John Arias, a veterans court mentor, drove 100 miles from his home in Wood River to meet with Furnas and go to court with him, because no one was there for him when he came back from combat and ended up in trouble with the law.

"I understood the frustration because I had been frustrated. I understood the anger because I had been angry," he said.

In the end, Arias said, it's not about how many times we fall.

"What matters most is how many times we get up, dust ourselves off and move forward," he said.

Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Heavican, a big supporter of problem-solving courts such as this one, said those in the room didn't need him to tell them that veterans treatment courts are transformative.

"Everyone who has come here today to celebrate these graduating veterans witnessed that transformative change firsthand. Treatment courts can change lives, restore families and strengthen communities," he said.

There are about 1,500 people participating in problem-solving courts in Nebraska, overseen by 40 judges who have stepped up because they see the impact the courts can have in their communities. And they continue to expand, Heavican said.

"They serve as a shining example of how the third branch of government can innovate and improve the delivery of justice in our state," he added.

Heavican said the four graduates' dedication and resolve was a "testament to the limitless potential of our veterans when they are given the resources and support they have earned."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7237 or lpilger@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSpilger.


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