The atmosphere in the Tampa courtroom was especially emotional that day, recalls Col. (U.S. Army Retired) D.J. Reyes ’79. As the judge dismissed the charges against the defendant, a U.S. military veteran who had successfully completed the Veterans Treatment Court (VTC) program, everyone clapped. There was hugging and crying. And as the veteran exited the courtroom alongside his family, his wife stopped to hug Reyes, who was instrumental in establishing Tampa’s Veterans Treatment Court in 2013.
“She hugs me and she whispers in my ear, ‘Thank you for giving my husband back to me,’” says Reyes. “That was probably two years into the VTC. We’ve helped restore families and that is a huge thing. I tell folks, tongue in cheek, that the VTC’s a lot like church. There’s a lot of standing up, a lot of sitting down, a lot of laughing, a lot of crying, and a lot of homily talk.”
VTCs are like a criminal courtroom, in that someone has committed a crime and must appear before a judge, with lawyers trying the case. But that’s where all the similarities to a regular courtroom end, Reyes says. The VTC model was established to address the link between criminal conduct and the effects of military service, including post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and mental health and substance abuse problems.
“In a regular court, you are either guilty, or you’re not guilty,” says Reyes. But in Veterans Treatment Court, the veterans enroll in a program that, if successfully completed, can lead to dismissal of charges. Veterans are eligible for a VTC if it can be established that they suffered a qualifying disorder, disability or condition while serving in military uniform. This may explain, in part, subsequent criminal behavior. The program includes court appearances, treatment sessions, mandatory drug and alcohol testing, community service, and access to a fellow veteran mentor. Reyes spearheaded the mentorship portion of the program, recruiting fellow veterans in the Tampa area to volunteer, and also serves as a mentor himself. He usually mentors three or four veteran defendants at a time.
The Tampa VTC officially launched in October 2013 and since then, it has grown into one of the largest VTCs in the country. With the second-highest population of military veterans in the country, Florida has a clear need for the VTC model. Reyes’ Tampa court has a 92 percent success rate and has become the template for all new VTCs established across the U.S.
Reyes first encountered the Veterans Treatment Court model while watching an ABC News report about the VTC in Harris County, Texas, in August of 2013. That same night, he called a lawyer friend to determine if Tampa had such a court. The Tampa VTC was in the very early stages at that point, and Reyes immediately got involved to help get it off the ground.
“I was mesmerized by the concept of the court, that it was not based on punishment. It was based on identifying a disorder or disability that had some kind of nexus to the criminal behavior,” Reyes says. “The whole purpose of the program was to identify, treat, rehabilitate, and to reintegrate back into the community. That simple.”
And while the VTC is life-changing for the veterans it serves, Reyes also points out that it saves money to rehabilitate veterans this way, compared to jail time. “The national average to house a county inmate throughout the United States is $30,000 a year. For Hillsborough County, it is about $19,000-$20,000,” he says. “As of June 2019, we had over 225 defendants on our docket, which is over $5 million a year in tax savings.”
The VTC is primarily funded through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and supported by state and local organizations. When Reyes received the Community Hero Award from the Tampa Bay Lightning National Hockey League team in July 2020, he directed the $50,000 award to the VTC and other veterans support organizations in the area. Reyes has briefed Congress and White House officials on the need for national Veterans Treatment Court funding, which was subsequently established by law in August 2020.
Reyes is committed to supporting his fellow veterans, and does all this work for the VTC as a volunteer. He retired in 2013 from a decorated 33-year career in military intelligence and special operations in the U.S. Army, including multiple combat tours in the Middle East. Throughout his military career, Reyes advised senior U.S. government officials and military commanders in Iraq, Afghanistan, North Africa, Bosnia, Kosovo, Korea, and Haiti.
For Reyes, the son of a 26-year U.S. Army veteran of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, there was no question that he wanted to serve in the military after college. After growing up watching re-broadcasts of Notre Dame football games on Sundays, his decision between the U.S. Military Academy and Notre Dame’s ROTC program was easy.
Reyes excelled in the ROTC program at Notre Dame, earning the Patrick M. Dixon Award for the top graduating Army ROTC cadet. He also has a law degree from Temple University in Philadelphia and a master of arts in national strategy and policy from the U.S. Naval War College. Today, he stays busy with the VTC, supports his wife’s nonprofit efforts for children with special needs, and advocates against human trafficking activities and organizations in the Tampa Bay area, all while raising their 14-year-old triplets.
“The motto of ‘God, Country, Notre Dame’ has been a rallying cry, the moral compass by which to follow,” says Reyes. “It’s been consistent with the military ethos that I have been taught. I’ve always felt, hey, keep it simple. Know yourself and your beliefs. Scripture says faith without works is dead, and I believe that.”
To learn more about the work of Tampa’s Veterans Treatment Court, visit their website at https://www.hillsboroughcountymentors.org/.