CARTHAGE, Mo. — At 18, Justin Cozart was addicted to meth. At 20, soon after the 9/11 attacks, he joined the Army, hoping to defend his country and stamp out his drug habit under a military boot heel.
But Cozart’s drug use survived a tour of duty in Iraq, eventually getting him expelled from the military, and upon his return to Joplin, he says he began dealing drugs, joined a local gang, and was arrested multiple times.
Years of addiction had destroyed many of Cozart’s most important relationships, including with his daughter. “I missed the first five years of her life,” he said.
On Monday, Cozart finally chalked up a win, becoming the first graduate of Jasper County's new veterans court. At 33, after an 18-month regimen of counseling, residential rehab, drug tests and regular court dates, he is clean.
Courts in the county are changing their approach to people like Cozart — veterans and parents who run afoul of state law.
He was the first to choose the special court docket for veterans, with its myriad requirements, over jail time. He is the first example of its potential impact.
“If he (Cozart) hadn’t made the decision to turn his life around, what we did wouldn’t have made any difference,” said L. Wynne Krell, Cozart’s mentor and a retired lieutenant commander for the Coast Guard.
Yet Cozart said it was the stringent requirements of the court program that helped him turn things around. Today, he is sober and employed. He is taking vocational classes and has resumed regular visits with his daughter.
Court officials in Jasper County say the program is helping people whose mental health problems, including addiction, land them in court repeatedly. It adds to a roster of several programs in the county that offers such people an option besides jail time.
Since Cozart began the program, another 10 people have joined, including one who stood before the judge for the first time before Cozart’s graduation ceremony. The court system this year hired a new employee to run the veterans court.
Advocates say the court works by employing tools outside the court’s typical repertoire. Veterans who participate in the program undergo counseling, take regular drug tests and sometimes enter residential rehab programs, all with the close-range involvement of a team of social workers and court employees.
On court days, the courtroom bears little resemblance to the rapid-fire penal system that churns through thousands of cases in Jasper County each year.
The judge speaks familiarly with offenders, or “participants,” amid a support group atmosphere. On Monday, when another veteran stood before the bench and said he had been sober for 20 days after decades of alcohol abuse, he received a round of applause.
A veteran whose ill health put him at risk of a relapse received an unusual judicial verdict: a hot bath with Epsom salt.
“It’s like getting a call from my sister. … That’s the way I feel when I come to work on a Monday,” said John Nicholas, the associate circuit judge who runs the veterans court. “I want to know what’s happened with (veterans court participants) since the last time I saw them.”
In most respects, veterans court is similar to mental health courts already being used by 89 civilians in Jasper County. Veterans advocates say the special docket for former service members pays a symbolic tribute to their sacrifices and acknowledges a link between military service and drug abuse.
“Alcohol in the military has always been a mainstay,” said Bert Holloway, a veteran and VFW officer who serves as a court mentor. “Aboard a ship, you got a rum ration.”
Creating a special court for veterans also offered a foothold for a network of veterans advocates, many of them former service members who have overcome addiction. They offer mentoring to veterans court participants, cheering them on and helping with transportation.
As the crowd thinned out after graduation, mentors and current participants stopped to shake Cozart’s hand.
Many echoed Wynne’s sentiment, expressed in a speech during a graduation ceremony on Monday: "If anything comes up, if you find yourself wavering, you call me."
Their offers raised a key question for the program: Will Cozart and others be able to maintain sobriety without the routines and court orders that helped him get there?
Cozart is optimistic. “I have a whole new network around me now, people I’m connected to who I can talk to about any bump in the road," he said.
He plans to continue to attend a 12-step program and classes at Franklin Technology Center, where he is studying to work on HVAC systems. And, for the first time in years, he has support from his family. He said his focus is on rebuilding his relationship with his daughter.
“I had to stay sober long enough to realize I enjoyed being sober,” he said.
Since the first veterans court opened in 2008 in New York, dozens of jurisdictions nationwide — and at least 11 in Missouri — have adopted the program, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. Hoping to accelerate the process, philanthropies and government agencies have offered millions of dollars in veterans court grants.