CHICAGO — Veterans fought for our freedom and now others are working to keep them free from prison.
With prison doors about to slam shut, the Cook County Veterans Treatment Court provides the key in opening up a whole new world.
"Each one wrote a blank check to the United States of America for an amount up to and including their lives,” Judge Mike Hood said. "As a veteran, I understand mission, and I understand duty, and I’m really proud to be here, and I’m proud to know each one of you.”
Veterans treatment courts allows vets to appear before judges who understand PTSD and coming back from war.
Rita Pennington with Healing Quilts of Valor knits each veteran a blanket when they graduate.
"All the hundreds of hours of quilting, thousands of yards of fabric, millions of miles of thread, cannot thank you enough for your choice to protect and keep us free,” Pennington said.
Local court graduates are glad they get second chances.
“They give second chances when people just won’t get one,” veteran and graduate Irwin Obartuch said.
Veterans like Army Gunner Franklin Vera, who faced prison time, is now gainfully employed. From digging a foundation to building a solid frame, Vera wishes it was that easy when it came to rebuilding his life after service.
“When I got back home, it didn’t feel the same,” Vera said.
He tried to drown the pain with alcohol.
“I gave up, so at one point I thought this is my life this is what I’m used to and so I thought it’s not gonna get any better,” Vera said. “Maybe I should just give up. But, fortunately, my family never gave up on me.”
He spent two years recovering after eight years serving our country. Vera successfully completed the veterans treatment court requirements.
The goal? To save the lives of those who put their life on the line.
As a result of the program, Vera will not serve jail time for his felony DUI.
He says he’d possibly be homeless without the program.
“Still drinking and drugging, maybe homeless. Who knows,” Vera said. “This gave me a second chance at life.”
Judge Hood said at first he didn’t understand the value of the program.
"At first I wasn’t. I didn’t understand. I’m like, wait a minute, they’ve committed a crime,” Hood said. "And then as I’ve been in this court and I’ve looked at these issues and been to conferences and talked to other people, I’m committed to it because I think we owe it to our veterans.”
Justice outreach social worker Jessica Pinder was drawn to the program to help prevent mental illness from being criminalized.
“We’ve seen veterans reconnect with family that they haven’t spoken to in a long time,” Pinder said. "We’ve seen veterans come out of unemployment to even be employed.”
For those in the throes of addiction and recovery, the program provides hope.
"It was stressful getting out trying to adjust to society. Drugs and alcohol ruining my life,” Army veteran Maurice Woods said.
Woods was in and out of jail on charges related to substance abuse and crimes to support his habit. Until one day, he read a story of a veteran just like him while behind bars.
"He successfully completed veterans court. If he can do it, that gave me inspiration to move forward. Don’t run and tuck when things get hard. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it,” Woods said. "I came in open minded and willing because I need to change, I’m gonna die if I keep continuing doing the same thing, and I don’t want that. I don’t want it for my parents and my kids.”
Maurice graduates from veterans court in December.
Click here for more information on the Cook County Veterans Treatment Court.
You can reach the Veterans Treatment Court outreach coordinators at