HAMILTON, Ohio -- Roger Caldwell doesn't like to think of where he would be without Butler County's Veterans Treatment Court, he said Monday.
Court documents show where he was when he entered it: Facing a felony charge of possessing a firearm he wasn't supposed to have and carrying it, loaded, within reach in his car.
The former Army smoke operations specialist and explosives technician, who served from 1983-'85, was also grappling with drug addiction at the time he appeared in Judge Michael Oster's courtroom.
He pleaded guilty to improperly handling the gun and, instead of time in jail, agreed March 7, 2017, to accept probation and participate in a first-of-its kind program meant to help veterans such as himself recover.
"Each and every one of you involved in it has helped me change my life," he said Monday as he became part of its first-ever graduating class. "I've gotten my strength and courage back."
The Veterans Treatment Court encourages veterans living with addiction to pursue across-the-board life improvements that go beyond staying sober. The participants' handbook includes sections devoted to eating well, exercising properly and giving back to the community through a special project; as each stage of the program is completed, each participant gets a special coin marking their progress.
They're supported along the way by counselors, the court and peer-to-peer mentors who are also veterans. The last component makes an especially strong impact, Oster said Monday.
"I want each of you to truly know that lives have been changed," he told the graduates and those who came to observe the ceremony. "Lives have been saved by the work that we are doing and by the great work that these gentlemen do."
Brigadier Gen. William E. Dickens of the U.S. Air Force reminded the vets that success takes help from someone in the trenches.
"You can't do this alone," he said. "You need a wingman, a battle buddy, a shipmate who will encourage you and strengthen you and kick you in the butt when needed."
Although that's common sense in the field, it can be a hard piece of advice for soldiers to take in their daily lives.
"Don't be afraid to ask for help," Caldwell advised other veterans. "Sometimes pride can get in the way."