ORLANDO, Fla. — Before Emil Caron was a teenager, he says he had picked up a habit of using drugs and alcohol.

Before he was 20 years old, that habit got him kicked out of the Navy and started him on a path that spiraled his life out of control.

What You Need To Know

  • Studies estimate that one in three veterans has been arrested at some point post-service

  • Ninth Judicial Circuit is celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Veterans Treatment Court program

  • Veterans Treatment Court is a diversionary program specifically geared toward helping veterans

  • Since the inception in Orange and Osceola counties, more than 661 veterans have successfully completed the program

  • WATCH: See Caron's full story in the video player above

Despite spending more than eight years of his 30s alternating between the Volusia County Jail and the streets, Caron says he is blessed.

His blessings, the recovering veteran said, are ultimately thanks to a run in with the law where the law showed mercy.

“It’s hard to describe how amazingly free I feel now, but the best way to describe it is overwhelming gratitude,” Caron said.

Caron said his “lightbulb moment”came when he went to check in with his probation officer. He made it to the lobby, but passed out for several hours and missed his appointment.

It was a simple question from his probation officer that Caron said changed his life.

“She said, ‘Do you want to get help?’ And for the first time, I uttered, ‘Yes,’ and I don’t even know if I meant to say yes, but I need some help,” Caron said.

That was the beginning of Caron’s entry into a special diversion program for veterans in the court system.

The program is a collaboration between those charged, the case judge, prosecutor, and public defender, all working together to help get veterans back on a stable and productive path forward.

For Caron, it was not an overnight success — he relapsed in the program seven times.

With the right support and services, he said he's making it, having graduated officially from the Veteran Drug Court program in 2020 after three years.

“It got me accountable again, got me in a routine again — that living people do not just roam around the woods with a flashlight,” Caron said.

Caron is now director of Recovery Support Services at Recovery Connection, a nonprofit peer organization. He also serves as a peer mentor and advocate for Veterans Treatment Courts.

“Veterans with untreated substance abuse or mental health illnesses, including those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI), may find it even harder to return home, which can sometimes lead to criminal activity,” according to Florida Office of State Court Administrators. “Veterans courts are designed to assist justice-involved defendants with the complex treatment needs associated with substance abuse, mental health, and other issues unique to the traumatic experience of war.”

Judge Alicia Latimore oversees the Veterans Treatment Courts for the Ninth Judicial Circuit, which covers Orange and Osceola counties.

“When we meet in court, we’re not spending a lot of time arguing over issues or motions, or making our stance in drawing a line in the sand," she said. "We’re all coming together to find the solution to be helpful to the participant."

The success of Veterans Treatment Courts, Latimore said, is in the program's ability to focus on an individual and services needed, and not just on the behavior that’s gotten someone arrested.

“They might have transportation issues — veterans often have issue with homelessness or housing," she said. "They may have difficulty obtaining employment, they may also have difficulty with just interacting in society. So we’re going to do whatever we can to assist, even with those challenges to help them be a productive member of society and also manage those challenges that brought them into the system in the first place."

For Caron, it’s been a long road to recovery, and one he’s still driving. Being in active recovery drives him to continue working toward success, and to help others find success in their own recovery.

“We want to help put a real face to the recovery movement and show people it doesn’t matter where you’ve been, but where you’re going," he said. "And recovery is possible no matter how far down the track you went,."

The Ninth Judicial Circuit is celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Veterans Treatment Court program.

Since the inception, court records show that 661 veterans have successfully completed the program between Orange (556) and Osceola (105) counties.