By Kathie Rowell
Col. Chris Dooley, a retired Air Force judge advocate, believes in second chances and volunteers his time to help veterans in need of one.
For his efforts to establish a veteran treatment court in Chattanooga, Tenn., and his work with homeless veterans, he is the chapter-level recipient of MOAA’s 2023 Col. Steve Strobridge Legislative Award.
Dooley, who is legislative liaison for the Chattanooga Chapter of MOAA, spent about 20 of his 30 years of service overseas. He served as both a prosecutor and a defense lawyer, was principal legal advisor for airstrikes and operations out of Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War, and practiced international law and operations law at the Pentagon. He asked to go to Afghanistan, where he was legal mentor for the 203rd “Thunder” Corps, Afghan National Army at Forward Operating Base Thunder.
Now his focus is on helping troubled veterans in the criminal justice system through a court designed to address their problems.
Upon moving to Chattanooga to be near his children after retirement, Dooley was disturbed by the city’s number of homeless veterans. He began to work with the Chattanooga Chapter, rescue mission, veterans council, and American Legion.
In 2016, Dooley formed the nonprofit Hamilton County Mentors 4 Veterans. Trained volunteer mentors help veterans with a variety of issues, such as obtaining benefits and alcohol and drug rehabilitation.
The nonprofit began helping veterans in legal trouble on an individual, informal basis, but Dooley thought more was needed.
“It became obvious that they had another need in the justice programs and that maybe we could save people’s lives and careers and their families if we did a little extra on the justice side of it,” Dooley said. “That’s why we began working to get a veteran treatment court.”
Dooley had been involved with such a court in Las Vegas, while serving as special assistant, U.S. Air Force Warfare Center at Nellis AFB.
“I saw a really good success in people's lives, and it just encouraged me,” he said.
Dooley is working with a criminal court judge and county administrators to formally establish the court, which would handle veterans charged with misdemeanors or low-level felonies.
“The reason they're in trouble with the law may be drawn back to their military service,” he said. “They may have PTSD or brain injury, maybe some sort of adverse action that had happened to them in the military. It colors their attitudes on how they do stuff here in the civilian world, or they don't adapt well as they come out. They need a second chance to be able to go along in life.”
Alan Syler, a former Navy submarine missile technician and American Legion adjutant to Dooley’s commander, has known and worked with Dooley on veteran issues for about 10 years, including on a current Legion initiative called “Be the One,” which addresses veteran suicide, which is estimated to claim from 17 to 22 veterans a day.
He describes Dooley as highly motivated. “He doesn't do anything halfway. He's always able to see the other person's view and to communicate with people. He's like a brother to me. I think the world of him, and I wish I was more like him.”
Kathie Rowell is a writer based in Louisiana.