Special Service 

Utah's vets: Justice or free pass?

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"I'm Not a Poster Boy."
The way Jakob Melton saw it, he should have gone to prison.

In early spring 2010, he’d gotten in a fight with his wife at their home at Dugway Proving Ground—then roughed up the cops after they came to break up the row.

“They could have put me away for a long time,” Melton said. Instead, he was given the opportunity to participate in Warner’s veterans court.

The Army medic had served his first tour of duty in Iraq with the 3rd Ranger Battalion, and a second with the 82nd Airborne. He was prepping for a third—a mission to Afghanistan’s remote Korengal Valley alongside friend and fellow Utahn Larry Rougle —when a series of small seizures, likely related to the four roadside bomb blasts he had survived in his earlier tours, resulted in an unwanted medical waiver from the deployment.

As the men he considered his brothers endured a brutal combat tour—enshrined in the Sundance award-winning documentary Restrepo—Melton did his time at the 173rd Airborne’s headquarters in Vicenza, Italy, where he trained fellow medics and helped arrange for the care of the wounded when they returned from the front.

He also did time in the brigade’s casualty-assistance office. “A lot of people don’t think about this part of it, and they shouldn’t have to, but there’s a lot of logistical work involved in bringing a body home and making sure that the families have everything they need to deal with that kind of tragedy,” Melton said. “That desk-jockey stuff? That was me.”

Among the paperwork that slid across his desk were orders to help arrange the transport of Rougle’s remains after the 25-year-old staff sergeant was killed in a firefight on Aug. 27, 2007.

“They tell you not to, but you can’t help but ask yourself, ‘What if I had been there?’” Melton said. “I asked myself that question a lot during those 15 months. I still ask myself that. It was a rough deployment all the way around.”

After being medically discharged from the Army, Melton struggled to readjust to civilian life. On a calendar in his Third Avenue apartment, he’d circled the month of March 2011—the point at which he had been told he would become re-eligible to re-join the military, so long as he could demonstrate that his medical issues were under control. Now, with a potential felony hanging over his head, Melton had another obstacle to re-enlistment.

In Warner, though, Melton found an ally—someone who seemed to believe in him even more than he believed in himself.

“He’s been really good to me,” Melton said as he sat outside the Twilite Lounge and smoked a cigar on a fall night in 2010. “He clearly wants me to succeed. And I’m trying not to let him down.”

But moments later, after throwing back one beer that he wasn’t supposed to have under the rules of his participation in the court—and going to the bar for another—Melton said he sometimes wished Warner would push harder.

“I go in there and I stand upright and I smile and I banter back and forth with the judge,” Melton said. “I think they see me as some sort of poster boy for the veterans court, but I’m not a poster boy. I’m a fuck-up.”

No Illusions
The call came to Warner’s office on the afternoon of Dec. 2, 2010. Melton had failed to pick up his daughters for their weekly visit; he’d never done that before. Salt Lake City Police had tried to contact him, but failed—and without further probable cause, they couldn’t do anything more.

Warner saw things differently. Though impressed by Melton, whom he indeed considered a “poster boy” for the program, the judge knew the challenges that the young veteran faced. To Warner, the fact that Melton hadn’t shown up to pick up his girls was evidence enough that something had gone wrong—and he quickly signed a warrant that would permit the U.S. Marshall’s Joint Criminal Apprehension Team to break down Melton’s apartment door.

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When they did, they found the soldier slumped over on his couch, resting on his left forearm. A black canvas bag was on the coffee table; several empty red balloons were next to it. Inside the bag, investigators found another balloon, filled with heroin.

In his report, Salt Lake City Police Detective. Cordon Parks took note of Melton’s military medical background.

“The victim was an Army medic and had training and experience in the use of pain-killing medicine and injections,” Parks wrote. “It would be most unlikely that he would not have known the result of taking three doses of heroin in one injection. The case is closed, verified a suicide.”

No one had seen it coming.
“He was very well-known and very well-liked in the program,” says Amy Earle, who coordinates the local justice courts on behalf of the VA. “He was exactly the kind of person that Judge Warner really wanted to start this program for.”

Earle said the community of lawyers, staff and counselors surrounding the veterans-court program are still mourning Melton’s death. “It just hit us all so hard,” she says. “It’s hard to lose anybody, but this was somebody that just had so much potential and so much life ahead of him. There was just a light about him.”

But even for poster boys, progress “is not completely straightforward,” Warner says. “As for Jake, I genuinely liked and cared for him, but I had no illusions about his situation. He had some serious issues and his demons finally caught up to him. They cost him his career, his family and, ultimately, his life.”

“But we tried,” the judge says, “and I am proud that we did.”

“The Way I See It”

Fred Jackson carried the bullet in his back for 40 years—a painful memento of his time in Vietnam.

The VA finally removed the slug earlier this year. Doctors said, at the time of the injury, that it would do more damage to take it out than it would to leave it in. Over the years, the bullet started to make its way out of his body on its own. Finally, VA doctors decided that it was close enough to the surface to go in after it. “It was strange to have it out finally,” Jackson chuckles. “It was kind of like losing a friend.”

Around the same time as the surgery, Jackson was charged with leaving the scene of an accident. A dumb and regrettable choice, he says.

Did that transgression have anything to do with Jackson’s wartime service? Probably not.

But Judge Baxter doesn’t care. The man who stood before him on a recent Thursday was shaking as he fought to stand up to take his turn before the bench. And though Baxter offered Jackson the opportunity to sit, the old vet declined, opting instead to steady himself on his cane.

Looking across the bench at Jackson, Baxter saw a man who had carried a burden that few others could possibly comprehend.

“Fred has every reason not to follow through,” Baxter says after court that day, after shedding his robe, loosening his tie and rolling up his sleeves. “He’s very clearly heavily physically disabled. It’s clearly a real effort for him to be here. And yet—this is one of the things I love about working with veterans—he said he would be here, and he was here.”

Baxter says that the veterans in his court make their hearings at a far greater rate than other defendants. By and large, he says, they treat the court with the respect it deserves. And in most cases, he says, they do what they need to do to take responsibility for the crimes that brought them to the court in the first place.

“It’s just so gratifying to be able to work with a population that is so deserving and that works so hard to try to do the right thing,” Baxter says.

Does that make veterans a special class, deserving of special justice?

Baxter doesn’t blink.

“I feel that I have a personal, moral obligation to do something more than just say, ‘I support veterans,’” he says. “And I have very little patience for people, all these armchair patriots who support the policies that got us here in the first place, who then complain that somehow or another these individuals are not deserving of extra help.”

Baxter leans forward against the table on forearms colorfully covered with tattoos—including several from his time in the Corps.

“That’s the way I see it,” he says, jutting out his chin like a Marine who might still be itching for a fight. “And if anyone disagrees with that? Well, respectfully, I disagree with them.” 

Matthew D. LaPlante is an assistant professor of journalism at Utah State University.

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