Veterans Treatment Court graduates its first participant
After he was arrested, police say, he punched the wall of his jail cell.
Johnson was just like many defendants charged with battery and disorderly conduct, except his girlfriend told police he had been having trouble since returning home from Iraq.
Nearly 18 months later, Johnson on Thursday became the first graduate from Veterans Treatment Court, the first program of its kind in Wisconsin aimed at helping veterans who commit crimes.
Johnson, 25, Beloit, had to undergo treatment for alcohol abuse and anger management, but the charges against him were dismissed Thursday because he successfully finished the program.
"I paid my dues," Johnson said after the graduation ceremony at the Rock County Courthouse. "It was definitely challenging."
Johnson paved the way for nearly 10 others in veterans court, which Judge James Daley, a Vietnam War veteran, started in September 2009. Other programs have since been started or planned in La Crosse, Milwaukee, Eau Claire, Waupaca and Juneau counties.
Veterans in the program must suffer from alcohol or drug abuse, mental-health problems or post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in combat. They must admit to the charges up front, but the charges could be reduced or dismissed if they treat their problems.
The goal is to prevent veterans from becoming repeat offenders.
The district attorney's office approves who is admitted to the program. Veterans must be screened and qualified to determine their treatment needs.
Attorneys on both sides then must agree on the conditions veterans must meet to finish the program. Mentors help participants.
The court is modeled after similar programs in Wisconsin for drug offenders or drunken drivers. Officials said the program is critical as more veterans return from serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Veterans who fail the program are sentenced.
During Johnson's graduation ceremony, Allen Ackers, director of the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital in Madison, congratulated Johnson.
"You helped us put together a program here that we think is going to be very, very successful," Ackers said.
Eric Nelson, first assistant state public defender, thanked Johnson for his service.
"This is an especially proud moment in my time with our agency," he said.
Daley said Johnson had done a great job being the test case for veterans court.
"I understand the challenges of people returning to normalcy after serving in combat," he said.
Gerald Urbik, assistant district attorney, said he appreciated the role veterans play in society. He wished Johnson continued success.
"You did this program for yourself," Urbik said, asking the judge to dismiss Johnson's case.
Johnson, who wants to serve in Afghanistan next, said he was overly aggressive when he returned from Iraq. He said the Marine Corps taught him to be aggressive.
"It's definitely a challenge to come home and settle down and realize you can calm down and talk things out," Johnson said.
He said he was happy the dismissed charges wouldn't be on his record, avoiding a possible military discharge.
"That feels very, very good," Johnson said.
His attorney, Mason Braunschweig, said he hopes the veterans program continues for a long time.
"This is a very important program, and it should be funded and continue to be funded," he said.