When Brett Walker becomes a major in the Massachusetts Army National Guard on Friday, he will be cheered on by a truly unusual band of brothers. Specifically, he will receive his promotion in the company of roughly two dozen people he is paid to prosecute, and they will be there at his invitation.
Walker (no relation) is both Suffolk County prosecutor and an active member of the military. The West Point graduate served multiple deployments, including one each in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He has combined his passions by carving out an unusual niche. He is the main prosecutor in a special court set up for veterans accused of crimes, a population so close to Walker’s heart that he refers to them as “my men.”
While in theory they are criminal defendants, Walker is the lead prosecutor in a special court designed to keep veterans accused of low-level offenses out of jail. The 18-month-old program requires veterans to sign on to a rigorous diversion program that included weekly court appearances, and heavy emphasis on making use of social services.
The premise of the program is that the depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress that drives the reckless behavior of some veterans can be addressed without jail.
Walker’s ceremony would typically take place in a military setting, but his hope is that watching him get promoted will encourage his fellow soldiers to see that good things can happen for them too, if they stay the course.
“It’s inspiration that there are further successes,” he said. “We wouldn’t have taken these guys into the program if we didn’t believe they could have future successes.”
The court for veterans is one of several special courts in Suffolk County meant to offer an alternative to incarceration. The veterans who use it have to agree to seek help for their issues, which often involve substance abuse, depression, or trauma. They must appear before a judge to report on their progress every Friday, and they are strongly encouraged to hold one another accountable.
“It’s not like a normal court,” Walker said. “They speak, and they stay while everyone else speaks. They are a cohort, a unit. They can pick each other up when one of them is failing, which is important.”
Walker said he was initially hesitant when he was asked to work on the program. But he reconsidered, he said, when he realized that many of the soldiers he served with were struggling with life after the military. While he was weighing whether to take on the assignment, one of the soldiers he worked closely with in Afghanistan called to say he had been arrested while wandering aimlessly in the middle of a busy street. He took the call as a sign.
“I was flipping through pictures of soldiers I served with and realized how many of them were struggling,” he said. “I realized that many of the guys I served with — great soldiers, strong soldiers — need the kind of assistance a court like this can provide.”
Walker said he believes veterans thrive when they are able to support one another, as they are used to doing in the service. The program requires them to attend court together, in an effort to recreate the lost camaraderie of their military days.
If it all sounds like an unusually sensitive approach to criminal justice, Walker’s boss, Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley, considers it a recognition that many veterans who land in trouble can help save one another.
“They had a different experience that might lend itself to a different kind of approach,” Conley said. “They’re used to discipline, they’re used to order, and they’re used to doing things in groups.”
So Walker, whose adjustment to civilian life has been easier than most, is attempting to help his fellow veterans turn the corner. “I’ve been very blessed in my service, but that hasn’t been the case for everybody,” Walker said. “We have to hold together as a community.”