two military veterans and Veterans Treatment Court graduates from Friday's program, Zoltan Szabo of Kouts and Thomas Throw of Portage. | Jerry Davich~Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 12, 2013 6:07AM
Thomas Throw tried his best to combat the disobedient emotions that ambushed his military-minded composure. But instead he retreated.
The 36-year-old U.S. Marine Corp. veteran’s teary-eyed acceptance speech imploded in shrapnel form during his graduation ceremony from the Veterans Treatment Court.
“When I first came into this program, I was extremely broken ...” he began, his barely audible words camouflaged by sniffles.
“I tried everything ...,” he said several seconds later as a hush from dozens of guests draped over the crowded courtroom.
“Nothing worked ...,” he continued after another painful pause, attempting to regroup his thoughts.
More seconds passed, more sniffles, more silence until Throw was finally able to utter, “I cannot express my gratitude enough for this program ...”
Someone in the audience thoughtfully began to clap and the courtroom erupted in applause, rescuing Throw from having to say words that were buried too deep.
This touching scene took place in the Portage courtroom of Porter Superior Court Judge Julia Jent, who oversees the county’s Veterans Treatment Court.
On Friday morning, six Northwest Indiana military veterans ceremoniously graduated from the challenging, no-nonsense program, including Throw.
The Portage veteran began the program in June 2012, after countless failed attempts to get clean, look in the mirror and face his demons, most that have haunted him since childhood. Since age 21, he tried drowning those demons in alcohol, even through his military stint, his 14-year marriage to his high school sweetheart, and his upbringing of their two young kids.
Through it all, the demons kept returning for more and Throw kept drinking.
“I was a slave to alcohol and it turned me into a monster,” he told me. “I was sad, angry, lonely and resentful.”
He racked up five DUIs in less than three years and, collectively, spent almost a year in jail after finding himself in front of Judge Jent a total of five times.
“I just didn’t have the right tools to deal with my problems. I wasn’t ever taught them,” said Throw, whose wife attended the ceremony. “Plus, my military experience was an added stressor and I was too stubborn to listen to others who wanted to help me.”
“I tried everything but nothing worked and I was losing everything around me.”
While in jail, he was visited by Jackie Algozine, the Veterans Court case manager who invited him into the program. He was reluctant at first but something soon clicked inside him.
“I don’t know where I’d be today without it,” said Throw, who completed two behavioral programs, earned his bachelor’s degree, and served as a volunteer to others.
“This program changed my life for the better — period,” he said flatly, proudly noting he’s been clean for 15 months.
Zoltan Szabo also graduated from the program after similar battles with booze through the years. The 51-year-old U.S. Army veteran, who served twice in Iraq, got his first DUI in 2010 and another one in 2012, he said.
“My drinking just got carried away,” he told me.
Szabo, who started the program on the same day as Throw, has been clean and sober since March 2012, the last time he got pulled over for drinking while driving.
He had a chip on his shoulder against companies not hiring vets, against our government in general, and against so-called “patriotic” Americans who claim they support vets but only with bracelets, car magnets and bumper stickers.
“Lip service,” he said with a shrug.
Formerly of Kouts, Szabo now lives in Georgia with plans to get married and start a new job after graduating the program.
“I just let it take over and after a few months it started working for me,” said. “This program helped me face my troubles and my drinking problem.”
Other local vets serve as mentors in the program, which is set to expand into LaPorte County next spring and, hopefully, into Lake County someday.
“We know what they’ve been through and it takes bravery to go through this program,” said Michael Triem, a mentor who works for the U.S. Department of Justice. “When they come in here, they’re at the bottom of their life.”
Fellow mentor and Marine Corp. veteran Joseph Baruffi of Chesterton agreed: “It’s incredibly rewarding for us, too, to help other vets graduate from this program.”
The program’s duration is from 12 to 18 months, depending on each vet’s progress through the treatment programs. The multiagency program holds two graduations each year, one around Memorial Day and the other around Veterans Day.
“Each veteran graduating has a unique story as to how they came into contact with the criminal justice system one time or multiple times. But their issues are more than just getting arrested multiple times,” explained Algozine, program coordinator.
During the ceremony, which was awash in American flags and “Welcome Home” banners, Portage Mayor James Snyder called the program “the best courtroom in America.”
Porter County Sheriff David Lain reminded guests that these vets sacrificed for our country and it’s our turn give back to them, “our debt to them.”
Algozine called out each vet, one by one, with Jent handing them their certificate with a handshake and a smile. She’s been a tireless advocate for vets in this region for many years, though reluctant of taking any credit.
“This is not my program,” she told the audience. “This is our community’s program. These are our veterans. Welcome home. You are now ready to move on. Thank you for your service. We are proud of you.”
The audience exploded into applause, followed by a standing ovation in front of the six honored and now decorated vets. From my seat near the back of the courtroom I couldn’t see Throw, but I’ll bet he lost that battle with those disobedient tears.
Connect with Jerry via email, at firstname.lastname@example.org, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.