Dawson Countys DUI and drug courts recent graduation was a celebration no one wanted to miss not County Commission Chair Mike Berg and not Judge Jason Deal, who said he was late for his first Criminal Justice Reform Council meeting with the governor and court of appeals judge.
And, with good reason. There was barely a dry eye in the room.
The ceremony, held Aug. 15 at the Dawson County Government Center, was packed with family members, friends and support groups who helped the eight graduates make it to what may be the most important day of their lives.
Drug court graduate Mike Callahan, who served three tours of duty in Iraq, had to choose between 10 years in prison or drug court.
When I was growing up I always went by work hard, party hard, said Callahan. Even when I was in the Army, we trained hard, we partied hard, and in the barracks wed drink, wed fight, wed have fun, then wed hit the bar.
According to Deal, who presided over Callahans proceedings, during his third tour in Iraq, Callahan was shot by a sniper.
As a result, he had to deal with injuries and prescription pain medication, which is not a good thing for folks with an addiction problem, said Deal.
Callahan related that the worst part was getting off prescription medicines.
Things got so out of hand, Callahan said, that his home was in foreclosure. And, he was later arrested for trafficking methamphetamine.
It had gone so far that I ended up living in my house with a camping stove and lantern, and I thought that was OK, he said.
Dawson County Public Defender Rob McNeil asked Callahan three times if he wanted to attend drug court.
Twice I told him no, but the third time he asked, he was like, youre looking at 10 years in prison, and I said, well, drug court looks like the place for me.
Callahan said his experience with Dawson County drug court changed his life.
Drug court gave me back myself, he said during a phone interview. I dont do pills or nothing to be able to get up in the morning. Im able to go to work without it. Drug court can change your life if you want it to.
Deal said Callahan is a resilient man.
He turned to meth, but hes a strong man, and hes done a great job, and were proud of him.
Deal then told the audience and Callahan that drug court is like boot camp.
People make you do stuff you dont want to do. People yell at you, but its for a purpose, Deal said. Its to teach you how to survive when you walk out the door.
Boot camp doesnt mean youre done. It means, hopefully, you have the skills to survive, he said.
Six other graduates took the podium to receive their DUI or drug court graduation certificates. Each one told a personal story of drug or alcohol addiction and how Dawson Countys treatment court literally saved their lives and helped mend relationships with family.
Graduate Phillip Lemley said drugs were the reason he lost his wife and the respect of his family.
Through this program, I got respect from my family back, said Lemley. I got friends again I can honestly believe in.
Dawson County Treatment Court Director Bob King recognized several audience members.
I want to thank all of you from the bottom of my heart, he said, referring to Dawson Countys sheriffs deputies, counselors and support staff. A person in the room doesnt get recognized very often and thats Major Tony Wooten. He was always encouraging toward drug court He sat on the board of Dawson Against Substance Abuse, and now the Friends of Recovery board. His church is behind the dental program. Hes a behind-the-scenes person who doesnt want credit, but he deserves some.
Deal, at the end of the ceremony, said he was proud of each graduate and he hoped to see them at the grocery store, or the gas station, or even on jury duty.
But, I dont want to see you back in my courtroom, he said. You know what to do to make sure that doesnt happen.
Treatment court programs are funded by state grants and by the counties that support them.
There are a lot of counties dropping or not funding programs, said Dawson County Commission Chair Mike Berg. While programs get grants, it still costs. The county has to provide, and we do that, and will continue to do that because we think its important.