Jan. 13 will be the day Ezzard Charles Smith can take one step closer to his new life.
A U.S. Army veteran, Smith spent most of the 1980s in the military, being shipped to Europe three times.
“When I was in the military, I drove all over Europe and the United States. That’s what I did. I was in transportation and I drove big trucks,” he said.
Since 1988, however, Smith hasn’t had a driver’s license. In and out of prison five times, Smith said his drinking started after returning home and going through a divorce.
“After we got the divorce and everything, I started drinking and drugging,” Smith said.
“I just didn’t care.”
After telling jail officials that he served in the military, Smith spoke with Nikki Allemani, the Hall County Veterans Court coordinator who is getting the program off the ground.
The date almost two weeks after the new year will be the day he can get a driver’s license again, though obtaining a commercial driver’s license can be tough for those with felony records, Smith said.
Smith credits the accountability court for his staying clean and getting back on the right track.
“It’s helping me find my life,” Smith said. “It’s helping me get myself back together.”
The program first organized in July 2014 and had its original four members the following October.
State Court Judge B.E. Roberts III said the accountability court sets itself apart from other Hall County treatment programs with its focus on post-traumatic stress disorder, an underlying source for some veterans’ substance abuse.
“We’re dealing with some guys who have seen some nasty stuff and have been through some nasty things,” Roberts said. “Consequently, they’ve had to use whatever they could to cope with wherever they found themselves upon their return.”
Of the 17 active members in the program, 11 served in combat. The military conflicts seen by the program’s participants span from the Vietnam War through operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In a year’s time, the veterans in the program spent almost 900 fewer days in jail compared to the year before the program began.
“I had to sit in jail for a little while, because I didn’t have anywhere to go,” Smith said.
From the Salvation Army to a hotel, Smith now lives with his wife Michelle in an apartment.
After years out of the regimented lifestyle of the military, veterans in the program face a more structured timeline throughout the week beginning with calling the drug screening line every morning.
“A lot of them have been marching to the beat of their own drum for a while, so just kind of getting them into a routine of following orders instead of automatically being opposed to them” is part of the process, Allemani said.
Treatment days are scheduled for two days out of the week, and members elect self-help tactics to supplement their individualized rehabilitation.
Allemani and Roberts said one of the biggest assets to the program has been the military groups around Hall County including the Northeast Georgia Veterans Coalition, which meets at the American Legion post on Riverside Drive in Gainesville.
The network, Roberts said, allows for better access and services for the veterans, particularly when working with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
One major distinction between Veterans Court and the county’s other accountability programs is the mentorship aspect, Roberts said. The program aims to pair people with similar service history to talk through their experiences.
“These are folks who we have some degree of common basis,” Roberts said. “They’ve at least gone through boot camp, been on some form of active duty and many in combat.”
Ideally, Roberts said a Veterans Court member is paired with someone from the same military branch and conflict, though this is not always feasible.
“I’ve got a lot more retirees that are able to devote time to this, and they’re generally going to be your Vietnam guys. But I’ll tell you what: If you lose guys in combat, these guys know what that feels like,” he said.
Roberts, who served as a Judge Advocate General’s Corps officer in the Navy, recalls having gunnery sergeants yell in his face and the sickness during his first time at sea.
“I’ve heard people say you can be a labor lawyer without ever having swung a pickax in your life, but I think it sure as hell helps,” he said.
Participants report to Roberts’ courtroom at 8 a.m. twice per month, standing at ease as the judge looks for status reports and updates.
Entering the second year, Allemani and Roberts said one of the biggest issues facing the program has been identifying eligible veterans to take part. The connotation of the word “veteran” has caused younger servicemen and female veterans to be less likely to identify as such, Allemani said.
Jail officials and various Hall County court services, Allemani said, have been vital in finding potential participants by asking about any prior military service.
Smith said he hopes to return the favor to Veterans Court and become a part of the mentor program once he finishes.
“It’s only if you want to be straight,” he said. “I want to be straight. I want to live the life that the Lord wants me to live.”