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Hamilton County Felony Veteran Treatment Court helps vets out of addiction, homelessness

Posted: 7:09 PM, Dec 03, 2018
Updated: 2018-12-13 02:00:20Z

CINCINNATI -- Elena Bishop could never do anything halfway.

She spent two years as a Master of Arms in the United States Navy before an honorable discharge in 2004, then obtained a degree in biochemistry from Tennessee State University and re-entered the government sector as a contractor for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In 2010, she was kidnapped and raped. 

"Anybody who has a history of trauma, they hit that crossroad where they can either be a benefit to society or a menace to society," she said.

And she had never been good at half-measures. 

She would be arrested in December 2016 with cocaine, heroin and money obtained from the sale of both. The drug use started as a form of self-medication to deal with the pain of having been attacked, she said. Over time, she began distributing it to others.

The arrest and accompanying felony charges took her before Judge Ethna Cooper, who offered her an alternative to time in prison: She could participate in the Hamilton County Felony Veteran Treatment Court, dedicate herself to repairing her life and earn the chance to have the charges expunged.

Her first instinct was to say no. Cooper, who had run for the judicial seat against Bishop's father in 1995, pushed her to reconsider. She eventually agreed -- uneasily. 

"I had many doubts," Bishop said. "It took many interventions, and it took the judge going against my will at the time, but I'm glad I stuck with this program."

The veteran treatment court connects former service members facing felony charges with case managers, probation officers and veteran mentors to identify the factors contributing to their offenses and create a plan to stable and sober. 

The entire rehabilitation process takes around two years, according to Cooper. As the court's only judge, she has supervised 64 veterans' successful graduations from its program since its creation in 2010. They range from those who participated in the Vietnam War to those who have recently returned from places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. 

The mission is special to Cooper because of her family's history, she added. Her father survived combat in World War II.

"I feel very privileged to be part of it, and I think I'm honoring my dad when I do it, too," she said.

Bishop is on track to join the growing number of sober, strengthened alumni in 2019. Once she does, she hopes to attend her father's alma mater: Chase Law School at Northern Kentucky University. In 2021, she will become eligible to have her felony charges entirely expunged.

"It's a chance I wouldn't have even been able to dream of prior to this program," she said.

Other participants felt the same. Donald Bower, who served in the Gulf War, was more than a year clean from substance abuse by December 2018. Richard Brock, who had been part of Desert Storm, leaned on the support of the program's mentors as he sought to leave homelessness and opioid use behind. 

"Every individual on this team cares about you guys, and any problem you have, no matter what it is, they can help," he said. "The only thing that's going to keep you from making it is you."

For people who survive years in deadly combat abroad, the internal struggle to overcome their own worst behavior can become the toughest battle of their lives, Bishop said.

Her family and the court helped her win her own. She has faith the latter can continue to help other veterans as long as they commit to holding themselves responsible and believing a better future is possible.

"You have fought so hard for everyone else," she said. "Fight for yourself. (It's the) hardest fight, but worth it."