Thirty-year-old former Marine rifleman Brandon Musser served multiple tours of hazardous duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, came home traumatized and ended up in a series of dead-end day jobs — as a bar bouncer, a doorman, a construction laborer — and soon was selling drugs.
He was suffering from alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder and had scant hope for much of a future.
His story is similar to that of former Army Sgt. Willis Hatfield-Reavis, a 10-year-veteran who spent a lot of time in Afghanistan and then, like Musser, in a succession of jails, even after he was discharged from the notorious military prison at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.
And then his veteran father committed suicide, his wife left him and he became homeless.
For both, the future seemed bleak, sad and painful, just not worth the effort — like the 22 veterans who commit suicide each day in the U.S.
Then Musser, who lives in Smyrna, and Hatfield-Reavis, finally ran into some luck. They heard about the Cobb County Veterans Treatment Court, which aims to rehabilitate returning veterans, provide them with mentors who are also veterans, help them get into treatment programs and help them find jobs or put them on the road to one.
On Friday, Musser and Hatfield-Reavis were the first two graduates of Cobb’s Veterans Treatment Court, signifying their completion of an arduous, 18-month minimum program that requires them to undergo random drug tests and attend court sessions nearly every week, among other things.
U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, spoke at the graduation ceremony and praised the county, the veterans court and all volunteers who make it work. Isakson said the government knows PTSD is a big problem and programs like Cobb’s veterans court will help it.
“There are a lot more Brandons and Willises,” Isakson said, pledging to keep working to help veterans.
Before a packed room of more than 300 people in Cobb Superior Court, Musser and Hatfield-Reavis credited their success to their mentors, who have been available to them 24/7.
Mentors like Bill Craig, a 69-year-old Marine combat veteran in Vietnam, and Peter Varljen, 58, a retired Army colonel, are on call and available at all times when their charges need help or advice. They meet weekly, often for lunch or just to gab.
The program is only a couple years old. Superior Court judge and Marine veteran Reuben Green, who runs the veterans court, said it needs veterans who have the time to be mentors and help new participants who’ve served the nation. How rigorous is the program? Each person accepted has a probation officer, to whom they must report monthly. Each must receive counseling for PTSD and other issues at the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Decatur, attend meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, attend other substance abuse programs, talk daily to their mentors — to mention only a few requirements.
Now Musser is about to get married and will graduate from Chattahoochee Tech on June 6, where he’s been studying motorcycle service technology.
“I’m ready to start the next chapter in my life,” he said. “I’m working now at Jet Skis at Allatoona Lake and hope to open my own motorcycle shop one day.”
Hatfield-Reavis has become a certified nursing assistant, works often at the VA, and recently bought a car.
“I’m working as a nursing assistant at the VA, and studying market management at Chattahoochee Tech to get my associate’s degree, then my bachelor’s in health and science at Kennesaw State University. It’s pretty remarkable from where I was a few years ago.”
He credited the program, but mostly his mentor, Varljen.
Hatfield-Reavis similarly credited Craig for helping him to become the man he is now.
The mentors, in turn, credited the determination of the men who were so down and out a few years ago but who’re now eager to get on with normal lives.
Craig, a former police officer in Cobb and Fulton counties, runs his own private detective agency. Varljen, also a combat veteran, spends most of time helping veterans and trying to find recruits for mentors.
Judge Green said volunteers should visit Cobbveteranscourt.org. Would-be mentors have their own page.
“We badly need more,” Green said. “Our mentor program is the model program for the state of Georgia. The program has been a great success. Many are now getting treatment they need, and not ending up in the criminal justice system. That’s the goal of our program. It’s one of the best things I get to do. We have people waiting to get in.”
Former 1st Sgt. Flynn Broady, 52, program coordinator for Cobb Veterans Court who spent 26 years in the Army, said men like Hatfield-Reavis and Musser “have to be really dedicated and determined to do this. It takes a full commitment from the veteran to change his life. I think there’s a lot of need, much more.”
He said 29 vets are in the program now and 14 applications are pending. The requirements are rigorous and tough.
Applicants must be charged with a felony or three misdemeanors. The program looks for service people who have PTSD or depression or other mental health issues, mostly due to military service.
“Once they are accepted, we start off with an initial treatment session. The VA decides what they need. That can be a problem because sometimes our guys are not up front with the VA and don’t get quite what they need. They don’t want to admit what some perceive as a weakness,” said Broady.
So, Cobb also uses a private provider, Westcare.
Those veterans accepted into the 18-month program go through four phases. Phase 1 is the starting point. In Phase 2, their treatment plan is reviewed and they start moral recognition therapy, Broady said.
“That helps them to develop a mindset where they stop thinking criminally and more in a morally correct way. It helps them realize that sometimes the way they think is not proper and leads them into trouble.”
During this period they are required to take part in bi-weekly sessions with mental health counselors.
In Phase 3, “they do a seeking safety class, from mental health and PTSD sessions, and family group sessions.”
Phase 4 involves relapse prevention therapy, and this lasts from one to three months. The final phase last six months.
“Throughout the whole program, if they have a substance abuse problem they are required to do self-help meetings, AA or Narcotics Anonymous. They are required to drug screen twice a week, coming in to the drug lab in the court. They come to court every Friday” and this lessens slightly through completion, Broady said.
During the entire course, the veterans must phone in daily, and don’t know whether they’ll be drug tested or not. Twice a week they are tested. Those who relapse must pretty much start over.
“Right now, we know that the ones who get in trouble with the law are the lucky ones,” said Broady. “Then they can get the help they need. The 22 veterans who commit suicide every day never get the help they need.”
Though it may sound like a hassle to be checked so much, he said “for most participants that accountability is what keeps them going. They know they are going to jail if they fail. But as long as they are in the program they can get jobs and housing and lead normal lives.”
While the county covers most of the cost, each participant must pay $25 a week, “but a lot of money is saved by them not being in prison.”
To be in the program, participants must have been honorably discharged, which allows initial work to be done at the VA.
“It’s tough to do, but it’s working,” Broady said.
Musser has been clean and sober for more than 570 days, and Hatfield-Reavis two years.
He has served hard time in places like the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary for drug-selling.
“On Memorial Day I’m going to take part in Rolling Thunder, riding a motorcycle to Washington, D.C.,” said Musser. “For the most part, I’m a free man.”
Willis-Reavis said “the young and dumb in me is gone. I have a girlfriend. I plan to propose in a couple of months. And then I’m going to get a degree in health and science.”
He plans to open Will2Win, a wellness center to help veterans in need of guidance and support by offering life coaches, personal trainers and a place to house homeless vets.
Musser is determined to finish college, where he said his grade point average is 3.93 out of 4.
“This has been great for me,” he said. “I really have a future.”
Both graduates spoke, thanking their mentors, the judge, the county and their families for support.
The room was full of dignitaries, including retired Col. Robert Certain, who was shot down over Vietnam and spent time as a prisoner of war before becoming a priest on his return.
Green said such programs are badly needed because 22 veterans a day commit suicide and 10 percent are unemployed.
“This program works,” he said. “You can see the evidence with these two fine young men.”