Veterans Court role allows retired Marine to pay it forward
"You can make it. It's not impossible. Believe you can do it."
Those are words that retired Marines Sergeant Major Ernie Hines says to each new participant in Cobb's Veterans Treatment and Accountability Court. Since the court was established in 2014, Hines has volunteered as the Mentor Coordinator, matching court participants with honorably discharged veterans.
And he means what he says.
"We'll give you a second shot," Hines says. "But no one can do it for you."
The court serves veterans who are generally facing non-violent criminal charges by providing substance-abuse treatment, counseling, and other support to help restore the veterans to productive lives. More than 50 participants have completed the program, which lasts at least 18 months.
Georgia's Council of Accountability Court Judges honored Hines with the 2021 Star Award for Veterans Mentor Coordinator.
Judge Tain Kell, who presides over Veterans Court, said he is “extraordinarily proud of the Sergeant Major.”
Katelyn Parker has worked with Hines for four years in her role as Coordinator of the court. She described Hines as "irreplaceable."
"He is the voice of wisdom in the room," Parker said. "He has a magical way of pairing mentor and mentee."
Hines grew up in a military family and volunteered for the Marines in 1964 when he was 17 years old. He did two tours in Vietnam, a world away from his parents and younger sister in Philadelphia.
"My theory was, if you had to go, you might as well go with the best training, and the Marines were the best trained," he said. "You don't get nervous until that first shot in combat."
After retiring from the Marines with 24 years of service, Hines served Marriott and other companies in executive human resources roles. He also opened a chain of 13 convenience stores around metro Atlanta before retiring in 2006. Along the way, he and his wife, Audrey, raised four sons. The tight-knit family now includes 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Volunteering hundreds of hours each year with fellow veterans is Hines's way of paying homage to a Marine who mentored him during his military service.
"In 1971, a Staff Sergeant said to me, 'Get your education. The military will be over soon.' That changed my life," said Hines, who went on to earn a Master Degree in HR Management. "I later told him, 'Man, I owe you my life. You helped me learn to be a good responsible adult.' He said I could pay him back, but I didn't see how. He looked me in the eye and said, 'Pass it on.'"
Assisting veterans in the criminal-justice system is personal as well as professional for Hines.
"A large percentage of people in the court system are minorities, and I felt I could be a help to them," he said. "They could have been me. I could have been them."
Pairing personalities among court participants and volunteer mentors sometimes takes time. Hines checks in with both parties after a match to see how it is working out. There are about 20 active mentors, with more at the ready.
"The men and women who are mentors are a special class of people. They really want to help," he said.
A large part of the program is helping veterans get VA benefits to which they are entitled. Participants accept responsibility for their charges, and if they complete all that is required of them, the charges are later dismissed. That is huge, he said.
"With a criminal record, sometimes you can't get a job or rent an apartment," Hines said. "When you say they've got a second chance, that's real. They can start over."
But to get there, participants must put in the work, including submitting to regular drug tests and weekly court meetings. Not everyone completes the program.
"I'll do as much as I can do for you, but you have to carry your weight. It hurts when we have to let someone go," Hines said. "But sometimes they've got to do it in their own way."
Christopher Hansard, Superior Court Administrator