"They're not going to want to talk to you," a defense attorney remembers telling the Hennepin County district judge about his new endeavor.
But Hopper has backup.
Many of the defense attorneys who stand before him are veterans. Both city and county prosecutors are veterans. A court probation officer is a veteran, too. A couple of people from the Department of Veterans Affairs sit a dozen feet from his bench.
And, of course, the accused are veterans.
No, Hopper doesn't work at the military JAG Corps. But those who have sometimes wander into his courtroom to thank him.
"I've had a number of lawyers who were Vietnam vets say, 'Thank you. We need this,'" Hopper said.
All involved say the new Hennepin County Veterans Court — launched just over two months ago — has a single purpose: making sure nobody gets left behind again.
They have decades of military experience among them — and even more years in the courtrooms, watching Vietnam-era veterans who have descended into alcoholism, drug abuse, homelessness and increasing conflict with the law.
To make sure it doesn't happen to another generation, "we're all doing a little extra duty," said Chuck Decker, a probation and parole officer who retired as a command sergeant major after 30 years with the Army Reserve. He took the Veterans Court caseload on top of his regular duties with Hennepin County. "I've been telling people why I'm excited about it," said Jennifer Saunders, an assistant Minneapolis city attorney who served four years in the Air Force's Judge Advocate General's Corps. "I became a lawyer, I do what I do, because I wanted to perform a public service. I really feel that this court presents such an opportunity." ''I have a vested interest in these guys," said Paul Maravigli, an Air Force veteran who has been an assistant public defender in Hennepin County for 15 years. "Your country can ... ask you to put your life on hold or at risk. People being asked to make that sacrifice should have that commitment and sacrifice extended to them."
Added John Baker, a Maplewood defense lawyer and 22-year Marine Corps veteran who helped establish the court: "I get tons of calls from veterans literally from the back seat of a squad car. We have an obligation to get them help. ... But for their combat experience, they would not be in this position."
Ben Anderson's case is about as severe as the court will handle: In June 2009, he was arrested for drunken driving; his blood-alcohol content was 0.23 (0.08 is the legal limit). While driving the wrong way on a Minneapolis street at night, he clipped a police officer's arm with one of his truck's side mirrors.
In addition to the DWI, Anderson, then 29, faced a felony charge of fleeing police and a gross misdemeanor of criminal vehicular operation.
Even his defense attorney, Brockton Hunter — a former Army reconnaissance scout and a legislative chairman of the Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers — was struck by the baby-faced veteran's demeanor when they first met.
"I had a really, really bad feeling when I first met him. He was a guy on a mission ... very tuned out," Hunter said.
Then came the story of Anderson's service.
Anderson, of White Bear Lake, served during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as an aviation ordnance technician on the deck of an aircraft carrier, loading bombs and missiles onto aircraft. It's among the most dangerous jobs in the military: Anderson saw several people killed in the constant, chaotic motion of heavy machinery during late-night raids.
In 2002, Anderson, then 22, had just become engaged to a fellow deck hand and had persuaded her to work nights with him, something she wasn't used to.
"She switched for me," he said.
Three days later, on a pitch-black night, she walked into a propeller, 40 yards from where Anderson was working, and was killed.
"Fire rescue picked up whatever they could and threw it in a body bag. The fire crew came and washed off the deck, and we went back to work like nothing ever (expletive) happened, which just kills me," Anderson said.
"I didn't find out until the next morning. ... We always ate breakfast together; she never showed," he said.
"I just thought it was one of our shipmates, not my fiancee."
Anderson had graduated at the top of his class in aviation school and received a good-conduct medal and letter of commendation from a vice admiral for discovering an armed, 1,000-pound bomb on the flight deck. But after returning home, Anderson racked up a string of run-ins with police: a DWI in 2007, criminal damage to property, disorderly conduct, trespassing.
"When I couldn't sleep, I used alcohol to sleep. I never got in trouble with the law unless I was drinking. It just spirals into a really bad position," said Anderson, who had a clean record before his service. "It's really tough with family and friends not knowing what's going on. They sit there and know who I am, but not why I'm this way. And they'll never fully know. But that's one of the things we sign up for. That's one of the things we have to live with."
Hunter heard of Anderson's case — and saw it as a perfect fit for the Veterans Court. The fleeing police charge — a felony — was put on a stayed imposition, meaning if Anderson completes his three years of probation with the court without incident and complies with therapy, it will be downgraded to a gross misdemeanor.
The criminal vehicular operation was dropped. The DWI remains.
In return, Anderson is subject to extraordinary supervision. He visits with a VA therapist, has completed an intensive alcohol-treatment program and has seen his probation officer and court-appointed mentor sometimes once a week — much more often than he would under typical probation.
"We think it's very appropriate some of these vets are referred for treatment as opposed to incarceration. This just makes sense," said Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, a former Army Reserve captain during the Vietnam era.
Freeman's father, Orville Freeman, a Marine lieutenant and former Minnesota governor, was badly wounded in the South Pacific during World War II. "What I saw is a lot of my friends and a lot of my dad's friends suffering serious injuries ... and a lot of people in the criminal justice system who were out of luck," Freeman said.
With that in mind, Freeman helped set up the court after the 2008 enactment of the Minnesota Veterans Sentencing Mitigation Bill, which encourages the criminal justice system to consider nonjail alternatives for veterans whose combat-related stress played a role in their infractions.
When Hopper agreed last fall to oversee the Veterans Court, prosecutors told him: "We're not interested in a 'hug a thug' program," he said.
Minneapolis assistant prosecutor Saunders said Hopper, who had long operated Hennepin County's mental health court along similar lines, put many at ease. "We knew they were not going to get a pass," she said.
Said the judge: "Conditions will be onerous, and you'll be subject to intensive supervision."
So much so, probation and parole officer Decker notes, that some veterans opt out of Veterans Court, instead choosing a harsher sentence but with less checking-up and intrusion in their lives.
"One of the fears is that people that do bad things will ... kind of be let off lightly. In a lot of the cases, it's even more strict," said Dr. Mike Dieperink, director of mental and behavioral health for the Minneapolis VA Health Care System.
The court accepts few felonies. Cases that mandate prison time are refused: because the VA is prevented from treating them there.
And a guilty plea is all but mandatory, Hunter said.
"Anybody who comes in saying 'I didn't do it,' they're not going to vets court. ... They (court officials) are not willing to deal with anyone who is not willing to deal with their mental health issues and get the help they need."
But sometimes the added supervision is welcome. In addition to oft-mandated therapy, everyone going through the court is set up with a volunteer mentor: a fellow veteran who is on call for simple advice and help.
When former Brooklyn Park police officer David Nordan, 67, who did a tour in Vietnam in the Army Airborne, was introduced to a group of men going through the court, he spied a 63-year-old Minneapolis man wearing an Airborne hat.
The man, in court for driving with a canceled license, was undergoing treatment for chemical dependency and significant health issues. He also had served in the Vietnam era.
"As soon as I saw he was a paratrooper, I said that's who I want to be with. Airborne all the way," Nordan said. "I wanna be there with him, on the journey. They did the time."
He now spends 16 hours a week with the fellow veteran, driving him to appointments and talking about jump school.
"This is what I have to do, I made a commitment to this man's life. I wanna see it through."
The Veterans Court — like a few-dozen similar courts around the country — is just getting started. There are no statistics concerning how well it works at keeping vets from committing more crimes. And of the 30 people in it, only a fraction are "the poster children that everyone anticipated," Hopper said.
Rather than younger veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, "instead we're getting people that have been in the system over the past 20 years that have multiple, multiple problems and issues," Hopper said. "For those of us in the criminal justice system, it's not surprising. These are the people that have been cycling through for years."
Hunter believes that's because many of the Iraq and Afghanistan vets who are most susceptible to combat stress — those who have been on three or more tours — are still in the service. He predicts a wave of them in several years.
Hopper said he hopes to keep up, noting the court staff is limited. "We've decided to cap it this year at 50," he said. In a little over two months, they're more than halfway there.
Anderson, one of the first in the court, notes how last year he never would have thought about asking for help from friends, much less a court of law. "They (the Veterans Court) asked what I needed; they keep calling me. The vibe I got, when I got there, they were all for me."
Anderson has completed alcohol treatment and is applying for technical school.
"They really want to be there," said city prosecutor Saunders. "And I don't hear that often, as you can imagine."