Less than a week before Christmas, about 100 people gathered in the jury assembly room at the Galveston County Justice Center.
There were gifts, and cake, and smiling relatives.
All-in-all it was a better place to be for Joshua Warfield than where he was about the same time last year.
Last year, Warfield was just signing up for a spot in Galveston County’s Veterans Treatment Court.
This year, he was being lauded as its star graduate.
“I’d been battling with my own issues,” Warfield said. “It put me here. It put me where I needed to be.”
Warfield, a former U.S. Marine Corps sergeant who served as a machine gunner from 2004 until 2009, including a tour of duty in Iraq, was one for five people who graduated from the veterans treatment court on Wednesday.
The graduation was the 16th held since the court was founded in 2013. The graduates were the latest among 45 people whose criminal charges were dropped because they completed the program.
Participants in the veterans court all have a couple things in common, aside from their service.
They’re all residents of Galveston County, and all have some form of brain injury, mental illness or mental disorder, or have been a victim of military sexual trauma. Some of the people in the program suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, but other conditions can qualify for the program too.
In all their cases, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has considered their case and determined that their arrests were related, in some way, to their military experiences.
What that means can vary, said Matthew Parrish, the veterans court administrator. A person might be abusing painkillers because of a combat-related injury, but also might have been charged with drunk driving after attending a memorial service for a fellow veteran, Parrish said.
As part of the program, participants are required to stay sober. They are also connected to medical or mental health providers that can help them deal with the underlying problems that might have contributed to their arrests.
On completion of the program, the crime that landed the participants in court is removed from their criminal record.
For Warfield, the program was a blessing, he said.
“I didn’t know that we had a program designed like this that could help veterans get back on their feet,” he said.
As he was leaving the graduation accompanied by his brother, he said he was prepared to spend the holidays with his family, including his young daughter.
The program doesn’t have age limits. It has served veterans from recent deployments to those who served during the Vietnam War. Wednesday’s graduation included men who served in the Army, Marines and Air Force.
Hundreds of veterans treatment courts have opened across the United States in recent years. In 2010, there were a few dozen courts around the country, according to a 2016 NPR report. There are now hundreds of similar courts.
The Galveston Court was founded in 2013. The size of the program — the number of people serving in the court at any given time — has doubled since it was founded, officials said. Eighty-seven percent of the people who participate in the program graduate.
The county last month re-applied for grant funding from the state to help keep the program open.
The courts are revelation for veterans who often try to handle personal issues on their own, said John Roberts, the National Service Director for Wounded Warrior Project, who was the keynote speaker at Wednesday’s ceremony.
“Veterans treatment courts are relatively new, and there’s a lot of older generation veterans that have this opportunity,” Roberts said. “This opportunity doesn’t come around all the time.”