Hall is a ‘go-to-guy’ when vets need help
‘If we broke them, we’ve got to fix them’
Sixteen years ago, Matt Hall was an Army sergeant in the Fourth Infantry Division as it swept from Baghdad to the Iranian border, liberating villages and hunting Saddam Hussein.
It’s been years since the Hill Ward Henderson senior associate traded his uniform and rifle for a business suit and briefcase. But if his memories of Operation Iraqi Freedom are fading, Hall’s dedication to protecting fellow soldiers remains remarkably intact.
Especially veterans who, because of service-related disabilities, substance use disorders, mental-health issues, or any combination thereof, find themselves on the wrong side of the law.
“If we broke them, we’ve got to fix them,” Hall said. “Let’s get them through treatment, let’s help them find work, because this is not without cost.”
Hall, a small-town Vermont native, helped raise $45,000 to endow the first veteran’s scholarship at his alma mater, the University of Florida College of Law. He commands a local VFW post and is active in the Hillsborough County Bar Association. And Hall is considered the “go-to-guy,” when a vet needs a favor, constantly tapping his business and legal networks to hook a vet up with a job.
But it’s Hall’s volunteer work as a veteran mentor in the 13th Judicial Circuit Veterans and Treatment Court, and his role in helping launch it, that friends and colleagues say sets him apart.
“Matt and other members of our senior mentor corps are saving lives,” said 13th Circuit Judge Gregory Holder, a retired Air Force colonel, who, as the second judge to preside over the program, lobbied to expand eligibility from misdemeanors to felonies. “Matt has also been an absolute leader in terms of bringing in other men and women who volunteer to serve as mentors, and I’ve seen Matt take money out of his own pocket to buy bus passes for veterans.”
When retired Army Col. D. J. Reyes, the local veterans court founder, was getting the program off the ground in 2013, he sent an email blast looking for volunteer mentors. Hall was the third person to respond.
Disciplined and hard working, but also polite and easy going with a self-deprecating sense of humor, Hall was a perfect fit for the program, Reyes said.
“We are the No. 1 veteran’s treatment court in the nation, and the reason why is largely credited to guys like Matt,” Reyes said. “He’s a natural leader, he knows how to leverage his combat experience and the ugliness of war, and all of the challenges the infantryman has gone through, and help these guys and gals find their way back.”
Veterans treatment court has all the trappings of a regular criminal court, with a judge, prosecutor, and defense counsel, but it gives veteran defendants the ability to avoid a conviction if he or she agrees to make restitution, complete a treatment program, and complete the terms of a graduation contract.
Veteran mentors, or “battle buddies” as they are also known, are a key ingredient. Mentors are active-duty or honorably discharged veterans who help mentees get to medical appointments, find jobs and housing, and navigate the labyrinth of local resource providers and Veterans Administration programs.
“Eighty-five percent of our job is active listening, and quite honestly, we’re there as encouragers, we enable them with good, positive behavior,” Reyes said. “Mentors can talk about the moral wounds of war that, quite frankly, other people who haven’t been there, wouldn’t understand.”
Being a good listener sometimes means taking phone calls at 2 a.m., Hall said.
“Yeah, it’s certainly not every day, but I get those calls from my friends, too,” Hall said. “Your role as an outreach person is to serve these people when they’re going through a tough time.”
Defendants range in age and experience from active duty to Vietnam-era, and they face charges that vary from misdemeanor trespass or shoplifting to DUI, domestic violence, and assault, Hall said.
One of Hall’s mentees, an Iraqi war veteran diagnosed with PTSD, is facing an assault with a deadly weapon charge after confronting a tow truck driver who was trying to repossess a girlfriend’s car.
“He woke up and he panicked, and he grabbed a butcher’s knife off of the counter, and he hit the tow truck’s window with the blunt end of the butcher’s knife, and the tow truck driver was in the vehicle,” Hall said. “And this was one of these guys with no prior arrests, no prior drug addictions — he had a PTSD flashback and he reacted the way he was trained to do in the Army.”
The 13th Circuit Veterans and Treatment Court has grown to accommodate between 175 and 225 veterans on its docket at any given time, Reyes said. It boasts 130 volunteer mentors, with 70 of them considered active at any given time. Reyes, a former senior military intelligence advisor to Gen. David Petraeus, is lobbying members of the Florida congressional delegation for legislation that would help expand veteran’s treatment courts nationwide.
Reyes estimates that the 13th Circuit Veterans Treatment Court alone saves Hillsborough County between $4.5 million and $5 million in deferred jail costs.
Hall is quick to say that his work with the program is only possible because of the support he gets from his colleagues and supervisors at Hill Ward Henderson.
“I’m fortunate because I have a platform, I have a resource, I have a firm that is extremely supportive, both financially, and with resources, for my crazy projects,” Hall said. “They’re mentally supportive, they’ve chipped in financially, they’ve sponsored events that I’ve asked them to sponsor.”
For Hall, the program represents even more than a lifeline for fellow veterans and cost-savings for local taxpayers. Being able to switch gears brings balance to his busy work and family life, Hall said.
“I like practicing law, but it can be frustrating, and I do some of this veteran’s work for self-grounding, it gives me peace of mind,” He said. “I work in a big firm, I’m on the 35th floor of a tall building, I wear a suit every day, so I try to remember my roots and go back and help people out as much as I can.”
When he volunteers to help veterans, Hall is also being a good ambassador for the profession, Reyes said.
“We always hear bad stories about lawyers, I’m just being very blunt right now,” Reyes said. “But if people want to understand what integrity and professionalism and caring and compassion are all about, they can look no further than Matt Hall.”