MEMPHIS - They were no longer in uniform, but a half-dozen military veterans completed a most difficult tour of duty recently as the first graduates of the Shelby County Veterans Court.
The innovative second-chance program allows veterans to have their criminal cases set aside while they participate in an intensive program that includes counseling, group meetings, alcohol and drug screens, anger management and participation in other support programs.
"You have completed a yearlong mission," Judge Bill Anderson Jr. told the veterans in a courtroom packed with supporters. "We're trying to make a difference to help those who've helped us for so long."
He gave each graduate a commemorative coin with the Shelby County Veterans Court inscription and told them it was a symbolic key to the courtroom; they can return to visit, seek further help or mentor other veterans.
They also got the criminal-justice equivalent of honorable discharge papers -- expungement orders signed by the judge erasing their offenses from the public record.
"So many times vets get left behind," said graduate Richie Ingram, a Desert Storm-era Army veteran who says he has "stayed straight" and participated in assigned Veterans Affairs programs.
Ingram had a drunken-driving charge, but that was reduced to reckless driving, which made him eligible for Veterans Court. "We've got a long way to go, but this is a good start," he said. "I'm doing OK."
The court holds session every Wednesday. There are 42 other veterans participating in its programs who hope to graduate and start with a clean slate.