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OPINION: Kane County program helps veteran overcome addiction and 'feel like a mom again'
Lake County News-Sun - 9/2/2022
Sep. 2—Growing up in Louisiana where she said both parents were heavily addicted to drugs, Amy Bergeron always "swore I would never end up" like her mom and dad.
But life was tough, even after being adopted at age 12 and experiencing more trauma that included her younger sister's death from a drunk driver eluding police, who slammed into the front lawn where the 16-year-old was standing not long after Bergeron join the U.S. Army in 2005.
Bergeron became a sergeant working in logistics at Fort Polk. But while in the military she also was a victim of an assault. And an injury on duty led to an addiction to Tramadol, which at the time, she says, the doctor told her was no more dangerous than Ibuprofen.
Medically discharged in 2010, within a year, Bergeron tells me she was so dependent on the pain medication — now considered a controlled substance — she quickly went from doctor-shopping to buying the drug on the street.
"Tramadol was my devil," Bergeron says, recalling the time she was naked on the floor in front of the air conditioner as it was snowing outside, unable to move and so sick "I felt like I was dying."
In 2015 — by this time she was living in Aurora with her longtime boyfriend she met while both were stationed at Fort Polk — Bergeron became ensnared in the Kane County judicial system after being charged with identity theft for stealing her doctor's prescribing ID number.
Because it was her first offense, Bergeron was put on probation. "But I was not ready to clean up," she admits, which led to more violations, more arrests, more rehabs and more court dates.
Facing five years in prison, Bergeron fortunately found her way in front of Judge Marmarie Kostelny, who presides over Kane County's Veterans Treatment Court. And it was in this new program, she says gratefully, where she was finally able to get the resources she needed to turn her life around.
"Amy was a tough case," recalls Phil Wessel, coordinator of this specialty court created in January of 2018 after Illinois legislation was passed mandating every judicial circuit have such a court to help those in the military who have run afoul of the law.
"The goal," he says, "is to grab those considered low risk to reoffend but who have high-risk needs, such as drug or alcohol abuse or mental health issues."
The growing need for such a court had been clearly evident, insists Jacob Zimmerman, superintendent for the Veterans Assistance Commission of Kane County, who helped spearhead the movement that made Illinois the first state in the nation to require such a court program for veterans.
"We just need to look at different ways of catching these veterans before they fall through the cracks."
It's an issue that is garnering more attention, most recently at the national level.
A preliminary report citing Justice Department data and released by the Council on Criminal Justice last month found that one-third of veterans say they have been arrested at least once, compared to fewer than one-fifth of all nonveterans.
This report identified multiple risk factors — many interrelated — that included combat-related trauma, post traumatic stress, traumatic brain injuries, substance abuse, sexual assault while in the military and childhood traumas.
The council has also launched a new commission that includes high-level military officials as well as formerly incarcerated veterans to determine how the problem can be addressed.
Zimmerman and others familiar with the issue did not expect the number to be quite that high, but also pointed out that veterans can slip through the cracks when arrested because they are too embarrassed to acknowledge their service in light of their current situation or don't feel entitled to identify as a veteran unless they served in combat.
Police also "have a soft spot" for vets — many were in the military themselves — and don't want to make an arrest for minor infractions, notes Wessel, who helps lead training classes for law enforcement so they understand their role in getting "those struggling with mental health or homelessness or substance abuse into programs that can eventually return them healthier to society."
Violating probations as she weaved in and out of multiple rehabs, Amy Bergeron was close to "about five years in prison," said Wessel, when she went into the county's veterans program and eventually found sobriety through Gateway Foundation in Aurora.
The 36-year-old graduated in April from the veterans court, with both Wessel and Judge Kostelny lauding her success and the leadership she displayed helping others who were struggling.
"When someone as tough as her makes it through and we see who they are as a sober person, it makes it all worth it," says Wessel.
"Of all the people we've seen, Amy is the biggest cheerleader for everyone else. She is always there, even when she was not doing so good, supporting other people."
Those qualities are likely the reason Wessel suggested she come back as president of the veterans court alumni group. And even though she and husband David are busy with their three kids, ages 11, 8 and 2, Bergeron tells me she recently decided to accept that role.
Wessel is also helping Bergeron apply for grants so she can become certified as a recovery coach, a job "she will do well because Amy knows when people are full of it," he insists, since she's been there herself.
"For so long I would hide and lie about who I was and how I was doing," Bergeron tells me. "Now it feel so good about just being me. And I'm OK with that.
"For the first time I can get out of bed every morning. I feel like a mom again. I feel like a human again."
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