by Len Lear
— Part two
Chestnut Hill native Melissa Fitzgerald, 50, was one of the stars of “The West Wing,” the multiple Emmy Award-winning TV drama that ran from 1999 to 2006. She appeared in 101 episodes.
Now, however, Melissa has a much different role. Since November, 2013, the 1983 Springside School graduate has been Senior Director of a non-profit organization called Justice For Vets in Washington, D.C. It has helped to create a nationwide network of Veterans Treatment Courts that is transforming the way veterans are handled in the criminal justice system. Last week we asked Melissa the following questions about her job and the organization:
Q: What is the concept behind Veterans Treatment Courts? Is a veteran charged with a crime tried in a separate court?
A: First, it is important to point out that the vast majority of veterans are strengthened by their service. They return from service as true civic assets in the community. Unfortunately, we also know that some veterans struggle with the transition home. Veterans treatment courts emerged because too many veterans were becoming involved in the justice system due to criminal activity related to substance abuse and/or mental health conditions such as PTSD. Rather than lock veterans behind bars, veterans treatment courts aim to connect them with the benefits and treatment they have earned. Veterans are held accountable, but they are also given the support they need to get their lives back on track. Veterans treatment courts are an extension of the drug court model, the most successful intervention in our nation’s history for leading people struggling with serious addiction out of the justice system and into lives of health and recovery.
How many cities have such courts now?
We have just over 260 operational veterans treatment courts across the country with hundreds more in different stages of planning and implementation. This translates to roughly 13,000 veterans who would otherwise be incarcerated but are now receiving life-saving treatment.
Absolutely, Philadelphia has an outstanding veterans treatment court presided over by a veteran named Judge Patrick Dugan. I have visited the court several times, and I always leave inspired by the incredible work they do.
Does this concept extend to veterans who were never in combat?
It does. We have to remember that the men and women who serve either answered the call of duty when their number came up, or they volunteered to protect our freedoms. Either way, they have earned our national respect. We know that combat can leave a lasting physical and emotional impact. But members of the military who don’t serve in combat may also suffer from these issues. Remember, many members of our military are involved in humanitarian work and disaster relief. They experience long separation from their families. Some may be victims of military sexual trauma.
Is much of your time spent fundraising?
Our mission is to put a life-saving veterans treatment court within reach of every veteran in need. In order to achieve this mission, we must raise funds. No money, no mission. But the absolute best part of my job is interacting with the men and women who participate in these programs. They are some of the finest people I have ever met, and I am honored to work on their behalf.
To play devil’s advocate, what if a veteran commits rape, murder or some hideous, violent crime? Is Justice for Vets’ position that such a person should receive therapeutic treatment and not go to jail?
Veterans treatment courts do not accept individuals charged with crimes that result in serious bodily injury or death. In fact, crimes that serious typically aren’t eligible for any alternative sentence. That said, the issues many of the veterans in these programs are dealing with can manifest in violent or aggressive behavior.
If you had to do it all over again, would you go into acting?
Absolutely. I have made many of my closest friends through acting. I have had some of the most incredible experiences of my life as an actor. It has given me the chance to be self-expressive in ways I never would have discovered otherwise. Acting has also given me a platform to champion the issues and causes I care most deeply about, including what I am doing now working on behalf of veterans and criminal justice reform.
What is the hardest thing you ever had to do?
A specific example of something hard was when I went to volunteer in Northern Uganda in 2006. We were working with malnourished children and their mothers who were living in internally displaced person’s camps, and there was one child I did not think was going to make it. I didn’t handle it well. I tried to convince our team to stay past the UN curfew for us to be in the camp. (We had to be out of the camp before 5 p.m. for safety reasons.) I did not want to leave this child, and I was unreasonable. I begged to stay or bring him back with us, which were both impossible. I still remember what he looks like and how his mother looked at him and at me. I think he represented all the children we couldn’t save, and the deep sadness of that truth overwhelmed me. It is hard to be with those memories and those feelings.
What are your favorite movies?
Off the top of my head, “The Jerk,” “Terms of Endearment,” “Sophie’s Choice” and “Trading Places.”
How would you compare your life now to your life in Hollywood? Pros and cons?
That is such a huge question. Very different. My life is much more structured now. The externals are different, but what remains the same is that I am still doing what I believe in, what I’m passionate about, and I still get to work with talented, dedicated, committed, mission-driven people. But the weather is not nearly as nice!
If you could meet any individual in the world, living or dead, who would it be?
Nelson Mandela. His ability to forgive after what had been done to him is almost unimaginable to me. I went to Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years, and I saw his cell and read a lot about how he was treated there and how he responded to his situation. It had a profound effect on me. I believe love and forgiveness is all there is, and to me, Nelson Mandela’s life was love and forgiveness in action.
For more information, call 571-384-1870 or visit www.justiceforvets.org.
— Part one