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VLS Opens Veterans Center

  • Vermont Law School student Chris Whidden, an Army veteran of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, prepares for a Veterans Day ceremony in South Royalton, Vt., Friday, Nov. 10, 2017. Whidden is president of the VLS Veterans Law Students Association and is leading an effort to establish a Veterans Treatment Court in Vermont. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

  • Michael Hervey, top right, buttons his collar before joining fellow Veterans Law Student Association members Chris Whidden, bottom left, and Harrison Drapo, bottom right, to practice their honor guard duties before a flag ceremony at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, Vt., Friday, Nov. 10, 2017. David Atkinson, a Coast Guard veteran from Randolph, top left, arrived early for the Veterans Day event. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

  • Members of the Vermont Law School Veterans Law Student Association retreat following the raising of a new American Flag for Veterans Day in South Royalton, Vt., Friday, Nov. 10, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • Chris Whidden congratulates Vermont Law School professor Peter Teachout, center following a ribbon cutting for the new Student Veterans Center dedicated in his name on the school's South Royalton campus Friday, Nov. 10, 2017. At left are Veterans Law Student Association member Rachael Swiatek and VLS Dean Thomas McHenry. At right is attorney Laurie Izutsu of the South Royalton Legal Clinic. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/11/2017 12:36:24 AM
Modified: 11/11/2017 12:36:31 AM

Royalton — When the Humvee in front of him ran over a roadside bomb, the resulting fireball mushroomed up into the Iraq sky, taller than a two-story building and throwing so much light that Chris Whidden could see, for the first time, the harsh desert terrain that surrounded him that night.

It was 2005, and his first mission with the U.S. Army. He was a week shy of his 21st birthday.

On Friday, as Whidden, now 32, addressed a crowd of about 50 gathered at the Vermont Law School for a Veterans Day event, there were few visible signs of the trauma that the war wrought on him. Tall, Whidden was a warm presence, his quick smiles softening the impact of his dark-toned three-piece suit and short-cropped hair. He’s gone from pushing insurgents out of strongholds overseas to pushing against bureaucratic inertia.

“I’m a (third-year law student) and I’m president of the VLS Veterans Law Student Association,” he said.

Whidden was there to make an announcement — the student association, led by his efforts, was formally opening the Peter Teachout Veterans Center, named for the school’s longtime faculty member and Vietnam War veteran.

When Teachout addressed the crowd before the announcement, he spoke of the differences between the very public war faced by his generation, and the far less visible war that has resulted in nearly 55,000 veterans accessing treatment at veteran hospitals for conditions ranging from physical disfigurement to post traumatic stress disorder.

“Their lives have been profoundly affected. ... We can’t help but be grateful for their service,” Teachout said.

Before the event, Whidden said that his own struggles with PTSD suffered during 13-month tours in Iraq and Afghanistan a decade ago have left lasting scars. Though the exploding Humvee was the first event that made the danger of his mission clear, he said that it wasn’t any one event that led to his own trauma — it was the accumulated pressure of living for months and years while in danger. Like many veterans, Whidden still feels the impact of that fear.

“There are days when I wake up and say, ‘I can’t face people today,’ ” he said. “So I just stay home that day.”

A native of New York who attended law school in Florida after leaving the military, Whidden has been a transformational figure in Vermont’s veteran scene. He said his own bad experiences with the Veterans Administration in Biloxi, Miss., coupled with his legal experience and his ability to make connections with veterans in need led him to become an active advocate. One expression of that effort was the Peter Teachout Veterans Center, which is located in the Anderson Building on Windsor Street, right next to the Veterans Law Student Association that he helped revitalize. The center will provide resources to help veterans at the school and in the community to connect to state and federal benefits and programs. Whidden also has been the driving force behind an effort to establish Vermont’s first-ever veterans court.

Laurie Izutsu, a staff attorney who leads the Vermont Veterans Legal Assistance Project at the South Royalton Legal Clinic, also spoke at the event. She said the roughly 45,000 veterans who make up 7 percent of Vermont’s population often need legal services to help navigate issues, from accessing their claims to defending themselves against legal charges that arise from their emotional scars.

“They might be suffering neurological effects from Agent Orange, or maybe (post-traumatic stress disorder) that prevents them from turning on the computer and requesting (the right benefits form),” she said.

There’s a growing recognition that trauma associated with military service can lead to addiction and violent crimes. Whidden and other advocates say those crimes could be better addressed in a Veterans Treatment Court, where a judge with special training could recognize the connection between service and crime, and consider sentencing options that acknowledge the population’s special needs. There are about 180 such courts in the country, according to Michael Owens, a justice outreach specialist at the White River Junction VA Medical Center.

“I’ve been doing this for five years and there’s been six prior attempts to do this,” Owens told the crowd. “Never before have we gotten as far along this path as we have since Chris Whidden has done this.”

Windsor County State’s Attorney David Cahill was not in attendance, but said during a Friday phone interview that the underlying philosophy behind veterans courts is to recognize what within the justice system works.

“If you want opiate addicts to get better, there’s a specific way to treat them in a treatment docket,” Cahill said. “Veterans are a unique population by virtue of the experience they’ve been through. For that reason, they are worthy of specialized treatment and frankly, they’ve earned it.”

Cahill said that his office has helped Whidden to sharpen an application for grant funding to support a local program. If it is successful, he said, the veterans court would be held at the White River Junction VA, where a direct dialogue with treatment providers would be possible.

“Chris could be behaving like an ordinary law student,” Cahill said. “He could go to classes and hang out with friends and party on the weekend, but instead he’s trying to fundamentally reshape the justice system in Vermont for the benefit of veterans who have earned that benefit.”

Whidden said while his focus is on veterans, he supports specialized treatment for a variety of populations that face special challenges in the justice system. One thing that makes veterans unique, he said, is that there are federally-funded programs and treatment options available through the VA.

“Why tie up state resources when you have federal resources?” he said. “That just makes no sense.”

Whidden said his push to help other veterans keeps him moving, and helps him cope with his own trauma.

“I like to help people,” he said. “And this is an important way to help.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.


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