Driving was always an escape from the stresses of life for Paul Radford.
When the Fort Mill resident medically retired as a sergeant from the U.S. Army in 2011 after seven years of service, Radford said the constant threat of roadside bombs made him even more of a defensive driver.
“It took me a while to ride with other people, and that’s why I always drove,” he said. “I felt safe with me driving.”
Growing up in a family with a rich tradition of military service, Radford, 30, said he was devastated to leave the Army because of a head injury that resulted in epilepsy, and a sports injury that was aggravated during his service.
“I felt like I lost everything. The Army was my family,” he said. “I wasn’t able to drive because of my seizures. That alone was a big kick to me.”
Radford said he had been arrested five times for driving under suspension and was intoxicated the night of Oct. 6, 2014, when he crashed head-on into a tree on S.C. 160 while going to pick up his girlfriend at the Charlotte airport. He spent two weeks in the ICU with multiple injuries including a broken neck.
Police later charged Radford with DUI, reckless driving, driving under suspension for a sixth time and habitual offender, he said. During his first meeting with the judge and a prosecutor, the judge suggested Radford was a good candidate for a pilot program called the Veterans Court Alternative Program, an approach that diverts veterans suffering from substance abuse and/or a mental health condition away from incarceration and into treatment.
Joe Medlin, director of York County Veterans Affairs and a retired command sergeant major in the U.S. Army and National Guard, met more than a year ago with 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett and 16th Circuit Public Defender Harry Dest about forming a veterans court.
“Initially, we were exploring the need for a formal veterans court,” Medlin said. “Based on the numbers at that time, we agreed we didn’t necessarily have the demand for a formal established veterans court. What we did have the need for, based on the numbers, is an alternative-type program to address some of the issues returning veterans were having.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder is one of the common underlying issues resulting in criminal activity among veterans, Medlin said. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports that about 12 out of every 100 Gulf War veterans suffer from PTSD, along with as many as 20 out of every 100 veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Medlin said in addition to mental illness, veterans may suffer from substance abuse or have difficulty maintaining relationships after returning home, which can contribute to criminal activity.
“Unfortunately, we’re not known for reaching out and asking for help,” he said. “It’s usually once law enforcement’s involved and there’s a problem that has to be addressed, they say, ‘OK, maybe I do need help.’ ”
Participation in the program is voluntary, and participants must undergo a mental health screening and receive treatment, if necessary, according to Medlin. Participants must have returned from service within the last five years, have no criminal record and need the support of law enforcement, the prosecutor and any victim involved.
“It means being recommended for the program,” Medlin said. “I need to have buy-in from all of the key players.”
The judge, prosecutor, defense attorney and Veterans Affairs work together to decide on an appropriate course of action for each participant that depends partly on the offense, Medlin said. The recommendation could include random drug and alcohol testing, mental health or family counseling and community service.
“The purpose of this is to address the underlying issues that are causing this behavior,” Brackett said. “Our successes are when we can divert somebody’s behavior and stop them from engaging in criminal activity.”
A critical component of the program, Brackett said, is the veteran mentor assigned to each participant to serve as a support system.
John Barnett is the lead veteran mentor for York County. An Army medic, he retired in April after 25 years as a South Carolina probation officer.
“I decided I was gonna try to do some things to not feel like I was retired,” said Barnett, who also volunteers with the guardian ad litem program and the American Red Cross. “Over my 25 years, I’ve had a number of veterans come through the (probation and parole) program.”
While Barnett ensures a veteran is meeting their attendance requirements and “taking the job seriously,” he says, he doesn’t “hold their hand.”
Radford recalled Medlin, who was his mentor, handing him a two-page list of requirements that included enrolling in college classes, getting a job, writing a five-page paper about his DUI arrest and going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He told Radford it’d take six or seven months to complete.
“I was like, ‘OK, let’s do it,’” Radford said. “I knew it was my last chance or I could have gone to jail, and that would have just made me continue to go downhill.”
Radford was serious about making a change, and said that except for the community service, he had most of the requirements completed within a week.
“He goes, ‘All right, now you’ve got to learn how to play the guitar,’ ” Radford said of bringing the completed items to Medlin. “He would keep adding different things. He didn’t want me to just stop; he noticed when I wasn’t busy was when I was getting in trouble.”
Radford was required to get at least a part-time job, he said. He got job at a Fort Mill pizzeria and, a week later, was promoted to manager. His fiancee, who had just moved to Fort Mill when he began the program, got a job at the same restaurant. They’re planning to get married next November.
“At work,” Radford said, “all the high schoolers look up to me and my fiancee as Mama Bear and Papa Bear – everything from their school issues to relationship issues to issues with their parents.”
One of Radford’s requirements was to create a “five-year plan” and detail how he planned to meet each objective. Included in his plan, he said, are earning a psychology degree, getting married, having a house and being able to drive again.
More than a year after the wreck that nearly ended his life, Radford said the Veterans Court Alternative Program helped him turn his life around. He urged veterans struggling with the same issues to seek help – which, he admitted, isn’t easy to do.
“That’s the biggest thing – I didn’t think I needed help,” he said. “It’s OK to ask for help. You can’t just sit around expecting people to come to you. If you need help, you need to get it. It’s not worth going down the path I did, being arrested numerous times and a head-on collision with a tree.”
During its first year, the program helped 12 veterans in York County with no recidivism, Medlin said. The program has six veteran mentors and could use at least two more.
“I would like to see my numbers dwindle into nothing,” Medlin said when asked if he’d like to see the program expand. “I’m just gonna make it available to the court system and see where it goes from there.”