By Joe Gorman
In the military, when you graduate from basic training, you move on to a career in the military.
When you graduate from the Youngstown Veterans Treatment Court, you move on to a new life.
Wednesday, four men successfully completed the program as they also paid tribute to the man who started it – Judge Robert Milich of Youngstown Municipal Court, who has to retire Dec. 31 because of age requirements.
Judge Milich, who started on the municipal court in 1999 and is an Air Force veteran, presided over one final court in city council chambers, where he also received commendations from Mayor John A. McNally, city council, the office of U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and the Mahoning County Veterans Service Commission.
Judge Milich started the veterans court in 2010.
Also on hand and taking the bench beside Judge Milich was his replacement, Judge Carla Baldwin, the former county juvenile court magistrate who won November’s election to replace him and also was sworn in herself earlier in the day.
Participating veterans plead guilty to the charges they face. Those charges can be dismissed if they complete monitored, court-ordered mental-health or drug-treatment programs. Veterans charged with violent crimes are not eligible to have their cases heard by the court.
Curtis Minnifield, one of the program’s first graduates, came from California to see the final appearance of Judge Milich for the court, which Judge Baldwin will continue.
Minnifield said he was addicted to cocaine for 42 years and came to Youngstown for his mother’s birthday. He said the arrest was the best thing that ever happened to him because it got him into the veterans court, which changed his life.
Completing the program was hard, Minnifield said, because “my body was screaming for cocaine,” but he was able to do it thanks to the treatment he received from the veterans court.
Judge Milich praised the participants who graduated as well as court staff and the various social-service agencies they work with for guiding them through the program.
To one of the graduates, Joshua Leach, Judge Milich said: “I see you took it serious when I said it was like basic training. You got a buzz cut.” The crowd and Leach both laughed.
Another graduate, Elemuel Murphy, told the judge he will miss him.
“It’s been a pleasure. I hate to see you go,” Murphy said. “It’s been a life changer for me.”
Fellow graduate Abdul Harris echoed Murphy’s sentiments.
“It’s a blessing, sir,” Harris said.
The other graduate in the program was Kenneth Ziegler.
Also speaking at the ceremony was former boxing champion Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, who also was present at the first court.
Mancini said he was honored to help out, especially as the son of a veteran, the late Lenny Mancini, who was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge and won a Purple Heart, and the uncle of a Navy SEAL who has deployed several times to Iraq and Afghanistan. He credited Judge Milich with starting one of the first veterans courts in the state.
“Judge Milich is ahead of the curve,” Mancini said.
Judge Milich said he is sure the court will be in great hands with Judge Baldwin. He said he was impressed with her speech at her swearing-in ceremony, and he knows “she has the knowledge and commitment to keep the court running strong.”