- Associated Press - Sunday, October 11, 2015

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - More than a year after flying into a rage at a Fowler Avenue gas station, where he pointed a gun at a clerk, insulted the man’s ethnicity and later fired shots into the air, Clay Allred stood ramrod straight in a Tampa courtroom, ticking off the things he has accomplished during the past few months.

He completed mental health counseling.

He logged more than the required number of community service hours.

And he has stayed away from alcohol.

In another courtroom, those accomplishments wouldn’t have meant as much.

But on this Friday, Allred, a former Green Beret staff sergeant, was appearing in Hillsborough County’s Veterans Treatment Court, where the steps he’s taken mean the difference between prison time on felony charges and house arrest.

A little more than six months ago, Allred, 30, would have been on the regular court docket, facing 20 years in prison for his crimes. But thanks to an expansion in February of the 2-year-old Veterans Treatment Court to include people accused of certain felonies, Allred has a chance to turn his life around under a strict program requiring a far greater commitment to self-help than the regular court system.

The Veterans Treatment Court was launched in October 2013 by county Circuit Judge Richard Weis, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves, who saw a steady stream of misdemeanor charges filed against veterans suffering from service-related mental illness, traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In February, the program was expanded to include people like Allred who are accused of felonies. The underlying issues are the same, says Circuit Judge Gregory P. Holder, a retired Air Force colonel who now runs the program.

More than 50 veterans charged with felonies and misdemeanors are now enrolled.

The court relies on services provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as a therapist specializing in post-traumatic stress issues, a collegial atmosphere between prosecutors and defenders and a team of several dozen military veterans serving as mentors.

The goal, Holder says, is to get veterans out of the vicious cycle of crime and punishment and to end veteran homelessness in the county by the end of the year.

To that end, Allred wants to finish his classes at the University of South Florida. But there is a hitch. He was expelled after his arrest.

In court, Holder suggests there may be a way forward on his desire to resume his education.

It’s all part of a commitment Holder addressed during an interview earlier in his office.

“We, the American public, broke these men and women. Exposed them to traumatic events, death and destruction,” he says. “By the virtue of their service in these harsh environments, we have the obligation to the extent possible to repair their health, both physical and mental. That is our duty and our sacred obligation to these men and women. Every one of them.”

On Aug. 21, 2014, Clay Allred hit the bottom of a long, downward spiral.

It wasn’t a trajectory he ever imagined as a graduate of the exclusive Bolles School in Jacksonville, where Jeb Bush Jr. was in the class ahead of him.

But after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and after a near fatal automobile accident, he was having trouble reintegrating into the civilian world.

Enlisting in 2003, Allred was sent to Iraq three years later, working to support Special Forces teams in Northern Iraq as a communications and signals specialist. He stayed at a Green Beret team house in Tikrit, where there was a constant threat from improvised explosive devices along roads Allred traveled in convoys. The house came under sporadic small arms fire.

Unprepared for what he would experience, Allred says, his time in Iraq left him wary and hypervigilant.

After returning from Iraq, he pursued a dream and earned his Green Beret as a member of the Army Special Forces in 2009.

In 2010, a near-fatal automobile accident in Ocala left him in a medically induced coma and caused traumatic brain injury. His injuries, coupled with what later was diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder, sent him into his spiral.

But he still managed to pull it together for a deployment to Afghanistan after his accident, working to help train Afghan Local Police under the nascent Village Stability Operations program. Allred says his greatest source of pride then was helping in local medical clinics.

“The most respected man from the whole valley was crying because of happiness,” Allred says. “His hope was that his child would not die from a preventable disease. To be an agent of hope for some of these people, that was pretty cool.”

Spending time with the villagers, he says, was a rewarding experience.

“I have a lot of respect for the Pashto culture,” he says.

After he returned to the U.S., he tried to resume college classes in 2011. But the experience exacerbated his feelings of isolation.

“I had a lot of trouble going back to USF,” he says. “During my deployments, I knew what to do, but being back at USF I didn’t feel like I fit in, and I started to realize I didn’t fit in with my family or teammates.”

Allred started drinking, as much as a fifth of whisky a day, even as he tried to prepare himself for a pending deployment to Afghanistan.

As often as possible, he would make sure to confine himself to his apartment starting in the early evening as a way to stay out of trouble.

“I built a routine and lived places where I wouldn’t have to drive and I could walk to the package store and home during peak business hours when there were too many people around.”

It didn’t always work. A year ago, it all came to a head.

An Army National Guard reservist at the time, Allred was staying in a hotel in Ybor City while waiting to move into an apartment that was being painted. His Jeep was loaded with the few things he owned - three rifles registered to him, some body armor he used during training, clothing, dishes, ironing board, computers, guitar and cables.

He spent a good part of Aug. 21 drinking. On the way back to his apartment, he finally had a break with reality at a gas station on Fowler Avenue and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, at a corner of the USF campus.

For Allred, the memories of what happened next are hazy. Much of what he knows comes from a video taken of the incident.

He says he wanted to use the bathroom but was told it was only for customers. He tried to buy an energy drink, but the clerk wouldn’t break his $100 bill.

Then he urinated on the counter and yelled “I hate you people” to the clerk, Quadratullah Hassan, who is Muslim.

Hassan chased Allred out to his car.

As Allred pulled away, he fired three shots from his Glock 26 pistol into the air.

“That sobered me up pretty quickly. I knew I was going to jail.”

Seconds later, he was pulled over and arrested, charged with discharging a firearm from a vehicle, a second-degree felony with a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison, as well as aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison, and criminal mischief, a first-degree misdemeanor.

On March 27, Allred enrolled in the Veterans Treatment Court.

He pleaded guilty to all the charges, agreed to accept the court’s stringent guidelines, and was sentenced to two years of community control followed by three years of probation. In addition to abiding by the court’s rules, he agreed to do 50 hours of community service.

“This has been a lifesaver,” Allred says.

Intervention plans like the one presented to Allred are individually tailored to veterans, Holder says.

Some might be required to undergo domestic violence, drug or mental health treatment, or some combination of those.

“The objective of this court is to offer these men and women who have served honorably in the U.S. military the opportunity for treatment, whether for drugs, alcohol, homelessness or mental health issues, including traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury,” Holder says.

The Department of Veterans Affairs plays a key role.

Jarred Miller, the VA’s veterans court coordinator, works with local jails to help identify veterans who might be eligible for the court.

“Lots of times, veterans don’t realize they are eligible for services from the VA,” Miller says.

A lot of Miller’s time is spent getting veterans linked in to the VA. Once they’re enrolled, he helps get them the services they need.

During the monthly veterans court hearings, Miller bounces frenetically between the hallway, where he counsels veterans who have just made and appearance, and the courtroom, where Holder asks for status updates.

It’s more than a job for Miller.

“I am a captain in the Florida National Guard,” he says.

Prosecutors praise the program.

“This court provides a support network that the veterans really haven’t had since they left the service,” says Mark Cox, a spokesman for the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office. “It shows that they are not alone in their struggles. That has been one good benefit we have seen.”

Like Allred, Cox says, most of the participants have had limited experience with the criminal justice system.

“They have a desire to be productive members of society again,” Cox says. “This arrest in most cases has been a wake-up call for them. Whether misdemeanor or felony, the goal is still the same - benefit from this program and never see it again.”

Many veterans are helped by Carrie Elk, a psychologist who runs the Elk Institute for Psychological Health & Performance.

“Dr. Elk has been a godsend,” says Holder, noting the free counseling she provides to many of the veterans.

The backbone of veterans court may be the mentorship program. Thirty-five veteran and active-duty service members volunteer at least several hours a week to work with those enrolled in veterans court.

The man in charge is D.J. Reyes, a retired Army colonel from Tampa who helped turn information into intelligence for generals, including David Petraeus, John Allen and Lloyd Austin III.

While most mentors in Veterans Treatment Court take on one or two defendants, Reyes has six, including Allred.

“Given Clay’s particular situation, I believe that he continues to embody the spirit and intent of the VTC program,” Reyes says. “He willingly acknowledged his wrongdoing, he exhibits a positive attitude, and he complies with all the requirements, treatment sessions, community service and community control restrictions placed upon him.”

Reyes says that as Allred’s mentor, “it was vital to quickly establish a relationship based on trust, respect and compassion. I continue to serve him as an ear to bend, an accountability partner, and a battle buddy who is walking side by side with him during his journey.

“Clay will succeed. He has served this great nation with honor. He deserves a chance like all of us.”


Information from: The Tampa (Fla.) Tribune, https://www.tampatrib.com

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