Melissa Fitzgerald is a former Hollywood actress. She starred as Carol Fitzpatrick on the hit TV show “The West Wing,” from September 22, 1999, to May 14, 2006.
In 2011, fellow "West Wing" actor Martin Sheen invited Fitzgerald to speak with him at the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) Conference in Washington, D.C. Fitzgerald found that the organization's work and its mission resonated with her.
Now, Fitzgerald is senior director of the nonprofit organization, Justice for Vets. The organization is a part of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP). She says what inspires her to serve is a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“There’s a quote that has inspired me for many years, and my old friends will know it is the Martin Luther King Jr. quote, which is everybody can be great because everybody can serve.”
Justice for Vets helps to grow the number of veterans’ treatment courts and to expand their role. These courts were created to meet the special needs of veterans involved in the criminal justice system.
Many veterans return from combat with mental health problems related to their service. Some suffer Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Some abuse drugs. These difficulties can lead to unemployment, homelessness and arrest. The veterans’ treatment courts help soldiers find solutions to break the cycle of drug abuse and crime.
Melissa Fitzgerald knows that every veteran’s journey back into civilian life after active duty military life is not the same.
“The vast majority of our veterans are returning home as leaders in our communities. They’re living incredibly productive lives and they are truly civic assets," she says. Some of our veterans are struggling and when they come home they are struggling and they get in trouble with the law because of a substance use disorder or mental health condition or trauma. Our mission at Justice for Vets is to put Veterans Treatment Courts within reach of every veteran in need so they can receive treatment instead of incarceration.”
Fitzgerald has visited many veterans in courts across the country. She says the programs are very rigorous and are part of the court system.
“You know it’s an interdisciplinary court team that includes a judge, prosecutor, defense lawyer, mental health care providers among others. They work together as a team and they are specially trained by us to assess and treat the veterans who appear before them," she says.
Not only are the veterans treatment courts effective, Melissa says they are also places of hope and healing.
"And it is amazing to support the work that's going on
there because it's remarkable. They are returning healthy veterans to our communities. And you know I think one of the things that really struck me when I have visited the courts around the country is that all of our veterans including the ones who are struggling are of our nation's greatest and most valuable civic assets,” she says.Fitzgerald has always helped people in need. Fitzgerald is also co-founder of the nonprofit group Voices in Harmony. The organization uses the theater arts to mentor at risk teens.
“I started Voices in Harmony in 1995 with several other actors and we kept working on that program as volunteers while we were still having our acting careers and we were struggling like crazy as actors but Voices in Harmony was flourishing and we just kept getting inspired to do more and more.”
In 2007, Melissa Fitzgerald traveled to Africa with several others to be of service.
“During the West Wing you have a good chunk of time off in the summer. So I one summer went to South Africa and volunteered and as a result I had the opportunity to go somewhere else to through international medical corps and I chose to go to Northern Uganda because I’ve been working with teens and there was the child soldier issue where children were being abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army there," she says. "And I think that experience really opened my eyes to the effect of war on communities. That really inspired me to feel like we actually have the ability to make change. All of us do if we work together.”
Fitzgerald also helped produce the documentary film, “Halfway Home.” The film features U.S. veterans from wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam. The soldiers recount their experiences in war and in their transitions to civilian life.
There are approximately 23.2 million military veterans in the United States. They are the ones who have fought, sacrifice and served this country. Now, Melissa Fitzgerald says we all owe them everything.
“I think our country owes our military veterans to embrace them when they come home, be there for them with the programs that work for them and for their families. A lesson that I learned in acting is when you want to know who your character is when you're reading a new script or a new play, what do you do? Do you look at what they say, that's one way. Do you look at what other people say about them. That's another way and maybe even a better way than what they say. But the real way you know who your character is… Is what do they do," She says. "So, I think that's very true about life. And I think that if we say and use the words that we honor our veteran’s thank you for your service and we are a grateful nation, those must be backed up by actions real actions. And I think real actions are supporting programs that work. And that's why I feel like justice for vets and the work that we are doing in Veterans Treatment courts is important powerful necessary and essential to really expressing our true gratitude because I do feel like the American people are grateful for the service of our veterans. And I think we need to express it through our actions as well as our words.”