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Local Veterans Learn How to ‘Come Home’ with Help of Treatment Court

Santa Maria program helps former warriors who have run afoul of the law cope with stress and addictions

David Morrison and his best friend didn’t hesitate to enlist in the military right after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Born and raised in Orcutt, Morrison was 18 and fresh out of Righetti High School when, a mere 14 days later, he signed on to one of the first U.S. Navy combat forces sent into Iraq.

Three years and nine months into service, Morrison was discharged because of a medical condition, and full of more anger and violence than he had ever felt. He joined a long list of veterans returning home from war with more issues than when they had left.

Now, 29-year-old Morrison can also be counted among those helped through Santa Maria’s Veterans Treatment Court, which was created as a pilot program last November to serve justice-involved veterans struggling with addiction, serious mental-health issues or co-occurring disorders.

Morrison will join a handful of fellow graduates of the VTC program Wednesday during a ceremony at 2 p.m. in Department 7 of the Santa Maria Superior Court.

Earlier this week, Morrison recalled how the anger that had built up inside him during combat had no outlet when he came back home. He couldn’t control it.

“Just had a hard time coming home,” Morrison told Noozhawk. “My family just looked at me different. We’d fight at the drop of the hat. It was the adrenaline. I was an adrenaline junky through and through.”

Restless, Morrison said he lived on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle, and traveled the country for a year and a half. He returned and shifted from job to job.

“I was used to traveling all the time,” Morrison said. “I never wanted to come back.”

Morrison was laid off from a steady mechanic job, and then opened his own mechanic business in Orcutt before making a life-changing decision to get into a fight at an Orcutt bar last Thanksgiving.

He was one of the first to enter into the 12- to 18-month program, which is a collaborative effort of the court, the Probation Department, the Department of Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services, the District Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender, community-based organizations and Veteran Affairs.

About 35 veterans are enrolled in the program, which is modeled after drug court, according to Deputy Chief Probation Officer Tanja Heitman. She said the VTC team is excited for the first-ever graduation.

“We’re seeing across the nation that quite a few of them are coming back with mental illness,” Heitman said. “This graduation for us is not only a showing of success of the veterans who have completed the program, but all of the efforts that have gone into the program.”

Morrison said Judge Rogelio Flores helped get him into an in-patient, post-traumatic stress disorder program that emphasized knowing anger triggers.

“Judge Flores helped me out,” Morrison said. “I have a hard time dealing with people.”

Morrison sends his girlfriend to get groceries so he doesn’t have to be around so many people. He’s currently riding horses for ranches a couple of times a week, collecting disability and going to Allan Hancock College to study agriculture business.

“I wasn’t as violent,” Morrison said, referring to himself before combat. “You either switch or die. I was a kid.”

With graduation, Morrison will be off probation, something he’s excited about.

“This thing has helped me out quite a bit,” he said. “They’re finally understanding that we’re different than lots of people. We’re different than regular veterans, too.

“That combat sets you apart. Sometimes you miss the combat. Maybe it’s the adrenaline you miss. They never taught us to come home.”

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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