SIOUX CITY | Organizers of a new diversionary program have toed the edge of the figurative swimming pool for three years now.
Finally on Friday, they were able to dive in. They hope they know how to swim.
"We're going into this just kind of jumping into the water and we'll swim when we get there. We've hit the water," said District Judge Jeffrey Poulson after the first session of the Woodbury County Veterans Treatment Court.
There are more than 100 such courts in the United States, but this is Iowa's first.
It was a day Poulson thought on several occasions would never come after experiencing numerous roadblocks during three years of discussions.
"This is an idea that simply refused to die," he said.
Thus, Friday's initial session, however brief, in the Woodbury County Courthouse was a major step toward what local volunteers hope will be a program that helps local military veterans in trouble with the law get their lives in order rather than end up in prison.
"We're not motivated by punishment, we're motivated by what we can do to help you. All of us have a goal here, and that's for you to have a successful outcome," Poulson told the program's first participants -- two middle-aged men, one an Army veteran, the other an Air Force veteran. Both are facing felony charges of operating while intoxicated and Veterans Court is part of their probation requirements.
Poulson explained to the veterans the court's expectations, then dismissed them. The heavier lifting will come in future sessions, once both offenders have a history of progress reports for court volunteers to discuss with them.
"Next time, we should have reports on whether they're making their appointments," Assistant Woodbury County Attorney Terry Ganzel said.
Organizers are taking the Veterans Court on a case-by-case basis, willing to remain flexible and tweak it as needed. The basic framework calls for offenders to apply to the court for acceptance. Ganzel will review the case to see if it's appropriate for the court. If he approves it, the Veterans Administration will assess the offender to see what services may be available to him or her. Then the full Veterans Court panel will review the case and decide whether to accept the veteran into the program.
Mentors with military backgrounds, but who are not affiliated with the judicial system, will be available to meet with Veterans Court participants.
The court will meet in open session every other Friday at 1:30 p.m. Prior to each session, court panelists will review each case to evaluate the offender's progress and determine what the next step should be.
A variety of options will be open for the panel to consider, Poulson said, such as accessing various services and programs. The panel will have the power to send an offender to jail for up to 72 hours if the veteran doesn't follow the rules.
Poulson said that as word has gotten out about the program, others have taken an interest in it.
"The community really seems to be coming together to help back us up," he said. "I know that a lot of people are going to watch us."