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0000017b-35e5-df5e-a97b-35edaf770000Over 70,000 people in Michigan served in the U.S. armed services during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.Michigan Radio’s Beyond the Battlefield series takes a look at how post-9/11 veterans are faring. Beyond the Battlefield features, interviews and online video profiles, exploring issues like employment, entrepreneurship, and reintegration into civilian life. The series also looks at how Michiganders think state and federal governments are doing at addressing veterans' care, as well as the particular struggles female veterans encounter when returning home.

A vet, a cop, and the crime that brought them together

Kate Wells

When Eric Thompson hit rock bottom, he really hit rock bottom. Like, fleeing-from-the-police-in-a-car-chase rock bottom.

“I wasn’t scared,” Thompson says of that night. “I didn’t have a plan. I was done. Seriously. I wanted to die. I just didn’t want to feel anymore.”

As part of our series looking into how returning veterans are living in Michigan, we took a look at a system of courts across the US and Michigan that are designed specifically for veterans.

Based on drug and mental health courts, veteran's courts run on the premise that if non-violent offenders get intensive treatment, therapy, and mentoring – all under the supervision of a judge – they can have their sentences reduced, and sometimes even have their records wiped clean.

Today, Eric Thompson is one young veteran who’s doing pretty well in veteran’s court, thanks in part to a police officer who saw him as more than his mistakes.

Drunk, high, and fleeing from the police

Two weeks after graduating from high school, Thompson enlisted in the army.

When he came back from Iraq, he started taking Xanax to deal with his anxiety and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

One night, after he and his fiancé broke up, Thompson says got high, got drunk, and got pulled over.

“And I just remember, faintly, the cop coming up and still having the bottle in my lap, and him looking at it, and me just saying – see ya," says Thompson.

"I just remember, faintly, the cop coming up and still having the bottle in my lap, and him looking at it, and me just saying, 'See ya.'"

Eventually he rolled the car, and woke up in the hospital facing OWI charges – as well as a felony for fleeing and eluding police.

“I just got a sense that something wasn’t right.”

It was Beverly Hills Police Officer Tom Danielson’s job to call Thompson:

"I was doing like a follow up, and just got a sense that something wasn’t right,” says Danielson.  

Now, there are two things you need to know about Officer Danielson.

One, he was nearly killed a couple years ago when his patrol car was hit by another guy who was fleeing the police.

So the crime that Thompson committed, it was personal to him.

But Officer Danielson is also a Navy vet.

"You got a close bond with anybody that served in the military, man. And I wanted to see if he was ok and if I could get him some help."

“You know, you got a close bond with anybody that served in the military, man,” he says.  “And I wanted to see if he was ok and if I could get him some help.”

“He definitely saved my butt, I’ll say that.”

Here’s how Eric Thompson remembers that phone call.

“The whole conversation wasn’t about the criminal stuff,” Thompson says. “It was about his concern for me. It was just, "Are you ok?"

"No I’m not ok."

"Are you suicidal?"

"I don’t know."

"And he definitely saved my butt, I’ll say that.” 

Officer Danielson got police to bring Eric Thompson back to the hospital so he wouldn't hurt himself.

He also talked to his police chief about Thomspon, told him what was going on,  and suggested the charges against him be reduced.

And that got Thompson into veteran’s court.

"When he said that to me, especially with what he's been through and what I did, it was like, ok, maybe I am here for a reason,” says Thompson. “And then the last thing he told me was, 'We just want to see you succeed.'" 

The deal with vets court is, if a veteran is a non-violent offender, the veteran can get a reduced sentence or even a clean record. In in exchange, vets do 18 months of hard, intensive parole and treatment. That means court hearings once a month, drug testing twice a week, and therapy. For those like Thompson, who battle substance abuse, it also AA meetings and NA meetings.

At the start, Thompson says he wasn’t that hopeful .

But he says he likes all the structure of veteran's court, that it reminds him of the military.

He’s set to graduate this fall. 

The judge even wants him to come back to volunteer as a mentor for other vets.

“I’m living again, I actually have, like, a conscience again.”

Recently, Eric Thompson sat down with Officer Danielson for the first time since that phone call.

"Good to see you man,” Officer Danielson said as the two guys hugged and patted each other on the back.

Thompson brought Officer Danielson up to speed on how things were going with veteran's court.

"I didn't want you to think that your efforts were not heard, or you know, seen,” Thompson told him. “And I've been busy. I'm living again, I guess I could say. I actually have, like, a conscience again or whatever. So. Seriously, I, I appreciate it, brother."

"Man, any time brother,” said Danielson. “I'm glad that I could help you, it means a lot. I've thought about you many a time. And it means a lot and I appreciate it."

Thompson’s personal life is stable again, too. He’s recently engaged, and plans to invite Officer Danielson to the wedding.

"Everybody that knows me knows about you,” he told Danielson. “And I say that not to be mushy, but with respect. You've changed my life."

Currently, about 60% of vets successfully graduate from veteran's courts in Michigan, according to the state’s numbers.

If Thompson does graduate in November, he'll join the ranks of 180 or so vets who've graduated in the last couple years. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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