JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Matt McKee wanted to serve his country. It’s why he joined the Army when he was 26 years old. He spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan before joining the 82nd Airborne.
His life took a dramatic turn when during a training exercise he was seriously injured jumping out of a plane. It left him 90% disabled. He left the Army and struggled with civilian life.
The intensity of the training and time spent abroad left him suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He turned to drinking -- heavily. His downward spiral ended with his arrest.
“I woke up in the back of a cop car slamming my head against the grate,” McKee said of that arrest.
He had consumed so much alcohol he had blacked out. It was not until he was in jail and spoke with his wife over the phone that he said the magnitude of his legal problems became obvious to him.
He was arrested for battery and firing a gun in his home after he said he returned from a bar and argued with his wife. He was facing up to three years in prison if convicted.
When he was offered an opportunity by the state attorney’s office to enroll in Veterans Treatment Court in lieu of criminal punishment, he jumped at the chance.
“Sign me up,” he said.
He knew he needed help. This was his second chance.
Veterans Treatment Court, also referred to as VTC, has been available to active duty or military veterans since 2013 in Duval County. There are similar programs in Clay and Nassau counties.
“VTC is a program that allows vets who have run afoul of the law to be sent to a diversionary program that takes them out of the criminal prosecution portion of the criminal justice system,” explained Judge Mose Floyd, who presides over Veterans Treatment Court in Duval County.
He said the program is intense. The vets must meet certain milestones in order to graduate and for their charges to be dismissed.
“They start by attending court every week with me. They’re attending treatment, probably twice a week. They’re dropping their urine two to three times a week to make sure they’re not using. They’re also meeting with or contacting my case managers and their mentors at least once a week,” he said.
A participant is also required to maintain a job while enrolled in the program, which takes a year to complete.
Individuals with qualifying criminal charges must meet certain requirements to enroll in VTC:
- Are active military or discharged from military service
- Have a documented mental health disorder, including but not limited to, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and/or substance use disorder
- Have an existing nexus between the offense and diagnoses and military service
Floyd said there are certain criminal charges that disqualify veterans or active duty military from enrolling in Veterans Treatment Court, including any arrest involving a violent crime, like murder or rape. No one arrested for selling drugs is allowed to participate either.
While all VTC hearings occur in a courtroom at the Duval County Courthouse, they are very different from a typical court hearing. Floyd, a retired Lt. Colonel with the Marine Corps, counsels from the bench.
“We fight for the man or woman to our left or to our right,” he explained during a recent VTC hearing.
He recognizes a veteran’s struggle with mental illness or drug and alcohol abuse is not unlike military battle. It’s a fight they can win, he reminds them, as long as they remain diligent about following orders.
His orders are drug and alcohol treatment, finding a mentor, attending court hearings, agreeing to drug/alcohol testing, and maintaining employment.
McKee said the most difficult part of VTC was getting sober.
“Just going through the toughness of being sober and facing my fears,” he said.
McKee was surrounded by his mentor, counselor and other supporters when he attended his last hearing last week. At that time, he was also surprised to receive a $250 check from an organization that works with imprisoned veterans.
“I’m just overwhelmed right now,” he told Floyd after receiving his graduation certificate and the paperwork from the state attorney’s office that officially dismissed the charges filed against him.
He is forever grateful.
He said it was clear where he would be if he had not enrolled in the program.
“Prison. Just prison, probably in an even worse situation than I was before. But instead, I got treatment. I got a good deep dive into what I needed to do,” he said.
McKee is now excited about his future in IT administration and about spending his life with his wife. He intends to serve as a mentor to other veterans enrolled in Veterans Treatment Court.
Since 2017, 155 veterans or service members have graduated from the Duval County Veterans Treatment Court. VTC always needs mentors.
Friends of Jacksonville VTC is a nonprofit organization that also raises money to help veterans enrolled in the program who are struggling to make ends meet. If you would like to help or learn more about Veterans Treatment Court, go to https://www.friendsofjacksonvillevtc.com/who-are-we.