Army combat veteran uses her experience to help struggling Lake County veterans
Retired Army Sgt. Roxann Garza-Tershel said her unit was attacked nearly every time it transported gasoline and water during her 13½-month deployment in Iraq.
"Nearly every convoy I was in was attacked in some way," Garza-Tershel said. "We'd see IEDs (improvised explosive devices) or small-arms fire. Through it all, we were told to just keep moving."
The eight-year veteran said she feared for her life many times when explosives or gunfire tore through her convoy. In one instance, her convoy became "sitting ducks" after it was separated from an armored calvary regiment in downtown Baghdad.
"We went through an intersection when the vehicle in front of us was hit by an IED," she said. "It was the first time I was like, 'Holy cow, that could have been us.'"
Garza-Tershel, 40, of Lakemoor, now uses those experiences to help other veterans as the treatment and assessment coordinator for the 19th Judicial Circuit's Veterans Treatment and Assistance Court. Veterans assigned to the program may be grappling with such issues as substance abuse or post-traumatic stress disorder, she said.
Veterans charged with a nonviolent crime who have been honorably discharged may apply to have their case go through veterans court instead of standard criminal court. Rather than punish veterans charged with nonviolent crimes, veterans court aims to provide treatment, support and structure -- and ultimately reduce recidivism and criminal justice costs and enhance public safety.
"I'm a vet, and I suffered a lot of the same issues my clients on my current caseload suffer from," Garza-Tershel said. "I can relate to them. I can say, 'I've been there, I've done that,' and then show them this is how I get though."
A 2005 graduate of Western Illinois University, Garza-Tershel started as a Lake County probation officer in 2008 before transferring to veterans court in 2012.
She meets with veterans daily, attends status review hearings, assists in determining eligibility and helps coordinate assessment functions in the program.
"I'm also in charge of the mentoring program, which is a group of veteran mentors who act as a 'battle buddy' and ally, someone clients can talk too," she said. "I have that connection with them because of what I went through. I'm able to get vets to open up in a way that others will never understand."
Since the start of veterans court, 126 veterans have been accepted into the program, with a 66.7 percent graduation rate, she said.
"This program helps vets re-engage into civilian life, helps them with the not-so-smooth transition from the military," Garza-Tershel said. "The program takes a therapeutic response to vets, gives them structure and holds them accountable."