A “Miracle” was instrumental in giving a U.S. Army veteran a second chance at life and success.
In 2015, German Antonio Batista of Hilton Head Island was charged with possession of cocaine. Days after the incident, Batista took his dog, Miracle, to doggie daycare. When dog sitter Anita Pomfret told Batista she’d seen his name in the newspaper, he was shattered.
“I was embarrassed, I was frightened, I was lonely, I was tired,” he said.
Last month, standing in a Beaufort County courtroom in front of family, friends and a phalanx of various service agency representatives, Batista related the conversation with Pomfret, saying that she was reassuring, telling him not to worry but to talk to a friend of hers who was a lawyer.
It was lawyer Cory Fleming’s knowledge of Beaufort County’s new Veterans Treatment Court (VTC) that changed Batista’s life.
Upon learning about the VTC option, “My first thought was, if this gets my charges expunged, I would take it,” Batista said. His plan was simple: “I’d fake it to make it.”
After meeting Batista, Fleming realized he was a perfect candidate for the VTC. Once Batista entered the program in November 2015, it took him less than 48 hours to change his mind about faking it, and he committed to becoming a better person.
“I don’t know how it happened, but all of a sudden I was seeing that I was powerless,” he said during his graduation ceremony.
The veteran participated in 16 weeks of intensive outpatient therapy, eight weeks of after-care treatment, and working with the Department of Veterans Affairs in Beaufort and Charleston, undergoing treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
How the VTC was created
When Solicitor Duffie Stone and the 14th Circuit Court inherited the Beaufort County drug court, his team changed the name to the multi-disciplinary court and broadened its focus.
“We wanted a treatment court that could provide all of the services to individuals from a variety of backgrounds that they needed, whether it be alcohol treatment, drug abuse treatment or treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental issues originating from military service,” Stone said.
The VTC works with combat veterans who have had brushes with the criminal justice system because of substance abuse and-or mental health issues.
Rather than ignore the plight of these veterans, the VTC program provides the treatment and structure they need to resume productive lives.
Part of the benefit for completing the required treatment and therapy is that a graduate would have the charges against them expunged.
Batista was born in Panama and became a permanent U.S. resident in 1986.
Two years later, he enlisted and served as a tactical Black Hawk helicopter repairman.
While traveling with a convoy in Iraq in 1991, Batista stepped on an IED (improvised explosive device). Shrapnel struck his legs, thighs and hands, resulting in lifelong physical and mental problems.
For his bravery and combat heroism, he earned a Purple Heart and two Bronze Stars. He left the military in 1996.
Batista moved to Hilton Head 20 years ago and started a roofing business that became successful, but his physical and mental scars began to wear on him, and he began self-medicating to treat the PTSD. That led to alcohol abuse and the charges for cocaine possession.
On Sept. 20, the 51-year-old Batista became the first veteran to graduate from the VTC program.
Overseeing the ceremony was multidisciplinary court Judge Erin Dean.
“We’ve come a long way, haven’t we?” she said to Batista, recalling that the two exchanged a lot of laughs as well as many serious conversations.
“It has been your positive attitude. You have been an influence on our fellow participants, showing that anybody can change at any point in their life, and also to our other participants who aren’t necessarily in the VTC,” Dean said.
Those other participants were present for Batista’s graduation for a reason. “Specialist Battista said, many times during the ceremony, how hard the program is to complete,” Stone said. “Participants need to know that they can succeed if they persevere.”
At ceremony’s close, Solicitor Stone told Batista his criminal record had been expunged.
“Today he is clean, he is sober, and that is after much extensive work with all of the people here and quite frankly, himself, because it takes his work to acknowledge his own issues that he has to face,” said Stone.
Batista and Miracle have a new future now, thanks to the Veterans Treatment Court.
To other veterans who might have gotten off track, Batista pleads, “Please enter this program. You’ll be amazed at the results once you get in it. It’s very frightening to face the law, to face going to jail. But trust me, this program will work. It will make a miracle out of you.”
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.