The Trenches at Home: How Veteran Treatment Courts Saved This Marine
At the first annual Veterans Court Conference, only one person who had been through the court addressed the audience of hundreds gathered for the revolutionary conference. Marine Corporal Eric Gonzalez told his story and stood as an example of how Veteran Treatment Courts (VTCs) can help. After the opening ceremony, Gonzalez was inundated with interviews from the media representatives present. As he spoke, he would tug absent-mindedly at his collar, although it was doubtful the uniform was what left him feeling smothered.
Eric was born in San Bernardino, California in 1990. He lived in a pleasant neighborhood, although the town itself had problems with corruption. He lived in a diverse area though and most everyone got along, at least the kids Eric played sports with throughout the years. He and his friends would “try to stay out of trouble,” but Eric may have actually gone seeking it.
After seeing some Marines in the halls of his middle school, Eric sent a letter to recruiter saying he wanted to enlist on a whim. Of course, he was too young and eventually he forgot about it. He continued to play sports and eventually earned a full-ride scholarship to a local college. As a junior in high-school, Eric looked at his accomplishments and saw only a box of dusty trophies. He wanted something more, something that felt both important and something that would last. That’s when he remembered the Marines.
His family was close. He lived with his sister, mother, and father. His grandparents lived across the street. His uncle, aunt, and cousin lived in an apartment building nearby. They were always around each other, which is perhaps why Eric had a penchant for solitude and a desire to leave his hometown for something bigger. So when he brought a Marine recruiter home with him, his parents didn’t fight it. They supported his decision.
However, after two tours in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010, his family also noticed that something in Eric had changed. “My family recognized it first,” he said, noting that he would spend days away from home and was increasingly more aggressive. From a presentation by US Army veteran and lawyer Brockton Hunter, the training adopted by the military after World War II was “expertly designed to overcome the service member’s reluctance to commit violent or aggressive acts.”
Eric was never a fighter before and never a drinker before, either. During his first two years in the Marines, he thought it was “disrespectful” to be drunk. He would attack people verbally over nothing. When out with friends, he’d become the “bodyguard” out a of a sense of paranoia that became self-fulfilling. He describes being in a fight with six men once. His friends stood watching on the sidelines in disbelief—one another Marine that Gonzalez was so angry with they haven’t spoken since—and Eric took punches and kicks, laughing at the top of his lungs.
He doesn’t remember the night that landed him in the Orange County VTC. He remembers going to bathroom after eating dinner, then nothing. A passenger that was in the car while he led police on a high-speed chase told him later that the whole while he was screaming and punching the steering wheel. Gonzalez spent three days in jail feeling numb, “like I took a bunch of painkillers,” he later said.
He was kicked out of court for arguing with a judge and was worried that he wouldn’t be accepted into the VTC. When he was accepted he was told he only had one chance. Any screw-ups and he’d be behind bars. Eric graduated from the OC VTC in 15 months. He’s currently back in California, studying to be an audio engineer.
Photo via NADCP