AUGUSTA — Two men who returned from the war in Iraq only to end up on the wrong side of addiction and the law are the first graduates of the state’s only court aimed at righting the path of troubled veterans.
Dan Andrews, 29, of Winslow, and Travis Bentley, 28, of Whitefield, graduated Tuesday from Veterans Treatment Court at Kennebec County Superior Court.
Lawmakers created the special court last year to treat combat veterans who had turned to substance abuse and crime after leaving the military.
“Would you not be here today without making that difficult choice to turn your life around?” asked Maeghan Maloney, district attorney for Kennebec County and Somerset counties. “Every day you must choose the difficult road of recovery and honesty.”
Maloney, a state legislator at the time, sponsored a 2012 bill that created the veterans court.
It was spurred when Farmington police shot and killed Afghanistan veteran Justin Crowley-Smilek, who was threatening officers with a knife, in 2011. He had appeared in court the day before the shooting and was ordered to seek psychological help.
The veterans court is part of the Co-Occurring Disorders Court, designed to aid offenders dealing with mental illness and substance abuse problems. Both programs operate in Kennebec County Superior Court and are overseen by Justice Nancy Mills.
Four men were honored Tuesday during the Co-Occurring Disorders Court’s fifth graduation.
Men and women enter both courts by pleading guilty and committing to meet rigorous requirements involving treatment, counseling and reporting to the court. Those in the Veterans Court are mentored by other veterans and work closely with the VA Maine Healthcare System in Togus.
Mills said entering the special courts often means longer and more strenuous standards than a simple guilty plea, but it offers a chance for the men and women to defeat the underlying mental illness and substance abuse that led to the crimes.
“We really like the people in this court. We believe in them, and we want them to succeed,” Mills said. “They are not the adversary.”
The court is not for any veteran, but those whose struggles came after leaving the military.
Andrews, who was in the Army, and Bentley, a former Marine, saw significant combat in Iraq. Both were decorated for their service and honorably discharged.
Neither of them had a criminal record nor any history of mental illness or substance abuse before joining the service.
However, neither successfully adjusted to life outside the military.
Bentley, who pleaded guilty to robbing a pharmacy of prescription drugs, was sentenced to four years in jail, with all but 85 days suspended, and three years’ probation after finishing Veterans Court.
His plea agreement called for a sentence of seven years in prison with all but two years suspended on the Maine charge if he failed to graduate. Bentley also would have faced a robbery charge in New Hampshire.
Andrews said he lost custody of his children and wound up homeless as a result of his struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder. A few years ago, he blacked out during an episode sparked by PTSD and assaulted someone.
Andrews, who said he remembers nothing of what happened, woke up at the Kennebec County jail, facing years in prison.
Both men began rebuilding their lives while going through veterans court.
Bentley, who is married and has two young children, said he now realizes how his reckless actions affected others.
Now he’s studying construction at Central Maine Community College in Auburn. He hopes to someday start his own business.
“I want to build our home first,” he said.
Andrews, who is working toward a degree in computer information systems from the University of Maine at Augusta, said he has a home and is his children’s primary caregiver.
“This court meant everything to me,” he said. “If it weren’t for this program, I wouldn’t have gotten the treatment I need.”
Craig Crosby — 621-5642