DEDHAM — Adam Matthews has been in and out of jail since his 2010 medical discharge from the Marines for war-related trauma that for so many in the military results in mental health and substance abuse issues when they return home.
The 23-year-old, a former lance corporal, spent much of his first two years stateside struggling with drug addiction and other problems, a toxic combination that led to repeated arrests, multiple stays behind bars, and thousands of dollars in court-ordered restitution.
Since March 2012, though, Matthews has been participating in a new pilot court program in Dedham for service veterans — the first of its kind in the state — one he says has changed his life.
Today, Matthews has a new family and just earned a promotion in the optometry shop where he works, all thanks to Norfolk County Veterans Court, he said.
“It saved me,’’ he said. “It’s cliche, but true. They give you everything you need to succeed.’’
Led by Presiding Judge Mary Hogan Sullivan, the initiative meets every Tuesday in a courtroom ringed with military flags on the second floor of Dedham District Court.
It operates like a drug court, in which eligible veterans who have committed crimes are sentenced to probation as long as they comply with the court’s requirements to stay sober, see the judge weekly and eventually monthly over the 18-month term, and seek out the services that are available to them.
The court participants have served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Vietnam, and range in age from 22 to 70. When the program kicked off last year, it had one participant, Sullivan said. At a session late last month, 23 veterans showed up.
“These men and women are so damaged,’’ said Sullivan. “What some of them have lived through? We can’t even imagine.’’
Sullivan and a team of lawyers, probation officers, Veterans Administration employees, social workers, and counselors keep the defendants accountable while assisting with their care for post-traumatic stress disorder, undiagnosed brain injuries, and drug and alcohol issues that often lead to legal tangles, homelessness, and unemployment.
Before the recent session, the banter was boisterous outside the courtroom as participants milled around, after having taken turns following a court officer into the restroom for a urine test.
“I was a cop before this,’’ one participant said.
“During my first tour, I drove a tank,’’ another said.
“I feel like [excrement],’’ one man said, holding his head, while another described what it was like to mix the antipsychotic drug Seroquel with alcohol. “All I know is I woke up in jail,’’ he said.
Sullivan volunteered to run the court after attending a national conference for drug court professionals several years ago. She said she sat in on a forum about veterans and became determined to bring such a court option to Massachusetts.
The judge assembles her team an hour before court convenes to catch up on how the participants are doing. Then she brings the veterans forward one by one to chat and touch base.
“How are the babies?’’ Sullivan asked, as Matthews took his place before the bench, all military bearing as he stood at “parade rest.’’ The judge said: “Did you bring any pictures?’’
Then, it was on to more serious matters as she questioned Matthews’s sobriety and stress levels. He said he was holding his own.
“Things are kind of excellent right now,’’ he said, smiling. “Going well.’’
That was not the case for others in Sullivan’s lineup that day, including one man who claimed to be sober but then failed the sobriety test. He begged to be allowed to go home, but Sullivan — a mother of four, including a former Marine, and the oldest of 10 children herself — is no pushover.
“We got a positive result and that’s like you saying the dog ate your homework,’’ she said, as the man protested.
Other participants sitting on the benches, including a group of older men who serve as mentors, laughed as the veteran insisted he only relapses on Fridays.
“If we only didn’t have that day, you’d be all set,’’ said Sullivan, issuing an order for an in-patient stay at a drug rehab facility.
Dedham defense attorney Jason Bolio, a former prosecutor who volunteers for veterans court, says he is deeply affected by what he has seen and heard in the program’s first year.
“The sickest people aren’t usually the ones to come forward for help,’’ he said, noting how each participant had been recommended for the program.
Most of the veterans in the court have endured unfathomable trauma, he said. One, for example, had to drive a tank that ferried the dead from the front, while another loaded huge firearms that burned and cut his arms.
Lack of an organized draft has meant multiple deployments in many cases for this generation, said Coleman Nee, the state’s secretary for military affairs. That means many have seen and done things to incur trauma that most people cannot imagine, he said.
The vast majority of veterans reintegrate well from active duty, Nee said. But others who may have already had underlying issues, or those who experienced severe situations, don’t, he said.
Lauding the veterans court program, Nee said the state’s new Valor Act, passed last year, requires judges to screen defendants before arraignment to learn whether they are veterans. If they are, judges can dig a little deeper to see whether underlying issues require treatment and help, he said.
“This is not a get-out-of-jail-free card,’’ Nee said. “It’s recognizing that incarceration without medical or clinical support results in a higher rate of recidivism.’’
The first Veterans Treatment Court in the country began in Buffalo in 2008. Christopher Deutsch of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals and executive director Matthew Stiner of the national advocacy group Justice for Vets say there are now 104 operational veterans courts in 28 states.
Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey said he is proud of the veterans court’s work in his county. “Anecdotally, I think we are making a difference,’’ he said.
Morrissey dismissed the notion that specialty courts may be a disservice to victims, stressing that defendants are returned to jail like anyone else if they break the rules.
Citing a study by the think tank MassINC, he said the state’s bigger problem is that outdated sentencing guidelines lead to longer-than-necessary prison terms, and because the state falters in providing adequate services — like counseling — many wind up back behind bars.
“We could make a big difference if we invest in the after-care,’’ Morrissey said. “You have to make a commitment now, which is not popular in the eyes of the public, to save millions later.’’