On the second floor of the Hamilton County Courthouse, behind an ordinary door marked Room 240, something strange happens on Thursdays at 2 p.m. Compared to other courtrooms, it’s over the rainbow and through the looking glass—a buy-the-world-a-Coke, Strawberry Fields utopia where offenders get hugs from the judge and applause from prosecutors, police and visitors.

“You’ve been doing great,” Municipal Judge Melissa Powers tells a guy in a golf shirt and khakis who went from boozer to businessman. “We’re all quite pleased.”

A few minutes later, she steps down from the bench and gives another offender a silver coin to mark his progress, then a hug. “I’m so proud,” she says as the court officers pat him on the back and applaud.

A tattooed young man in cargo shorts and a T-shirt stands at parade rest and proudly reports, “I’ve gone 13 days with no drinking.”

“You’ve come a long way,” the judge says.

“I’ve got a long way to go,” he replies—and again, applause.

Judge Powers knows this is nothing like her usual courtroom. But the men she sees on Thursdays in the Veterans Treatment Court are different, too. They have served their country and have the scars to show for it: battle wounds, addiction, post-traumatic stress, brain injuries and wobbly footing from a hard landing back in the world.

“It was a little off-putting at first,” says a vet who came to report his progress. “I was like, ‘What? Where are the orders?’ I expected something more military, more strict.” But now, he says, “I’m going to maintain my connection to the court when I’m finished, to help other guys.”

The treatment plans can take a year or more before graduation, including AA meetings, counseling, psychiatric help, job placement and medical care. “You don’t know how you are going to be affected until a year or even two-and-a-half years after you get home,” says Kevin Szczublewski of the Veterans Administration, who helps vets find jobs. Like many who are involved, he has personal experience from three tours in Iraq.

A veteran in a wheelchair tells the judge, “I’ve been sober for 75 days,” and thanks his mother for bringing him to court. Another says, “I’ve been clean for five months. I never would have quit drinking if I had not come to this court.”

Judge Powers says 90 percent of the cases are alcohol related. “A lot of the veterans don’t have places to live. One here today was living in his car. If we can address their needs here, they don’t end up hopeless and homeless.”

They are often sent to Joseph House—six residential buildings clustered near Republic and Liberty in Over-the-Rhine—that also takes men from another veterans court that handles felonies.

Some have severe problems, says Joseph House Executive Director Nathan Pelletier. “Heroin is the most used, most available, most deadly, most addictive, cheapest drug on the street with the fastest addiction and highest high,” he says. “The graphic things guys will do on the streets to feed their habit are horrific.”

Felony offenders are often older—40s to 60s—while Judge Powers’ misdemeanor court mostly has younger veterans of the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Pelletier had to deal with a resident who overdosed on heroin on the first day he joined Joseph House this year. But he’s seen worse in Iraq. The West Point graduate had 500 men under his command and saw heavy fighting. And even though he found a great job at Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati, the transition was difficult. He was severely concussed by an IED and has had back surgeries. He knows the problems veterans face coming home.

“How to grocery shop, pay bills, pay the rent, make a budget. The military hasn’t changed that much, but society has advanced so fast in 10 years. Transition requires so much more than ‘Thank you for your service.’ These men are extremely motivated to serve. They know and appreciate that people support them but they have a hard time relating. They are good at facing adversity and welcome a challenge—if they know what they are facing and are prepared.”

They are men who have made instant life-and-death decisions under fire, who know the bonds of brotherhood forged by battle, who have seen more in a week than most see in a lifetime. They come home to a safe and quiet world that must look like TV Land—no IEDs, mines, snipers, firefights, high-risk patrols or hovering shadows of death and dismemberment. Some can’t just turn it off that quickly.

Drinking and drugs “takes away the pain,” one said.

They have higher college dropout rates and higher unemployment than non-veterans. They make up 3 percent of the population in Hamilton County, but 13 percent of the region’s 8,000 homeless, Pelletier says.

“We’re bailing people out of the water who are already drowning. If you’re in a boat that’s sinking, first you need to plug the hole.”

So he has an ambitious plan to put Cincinnati on the map with the nation’s best transition for veterans. It includes training in basic life skills, career paths, job interviews and applications, then regular follow up to get veterans the help they need. He has asked the Joint Chiefs at the Pentagon to make Cincinnati a pilot project. Nationally, he says, about 300,000 will soon be coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq. Locally, the Cincinnati area will get 7,000 of those, which could overwhelm veterans courts and Joseph House’s 115-bed capacity.

Pelletier says the Army Chief of Staff Office of Warriors and Family Support is reviewing his plan, along with U.S. Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Cincinnati, who is a veteran of Iraq and serves on the Armed Services and Veterans Affairs committees.

“Everything I’m doing comes from what I’ve seen and experienced personally,” he says. “I remember the looks on my guys’ faces when they were maxed out and could not go any farther.”

Back in Room 240, Judge Powers gets an update from a veteran who walked 15 miles to catch a bus to court and treatment, sometimes twice a week. “This was in the dead of winter,” she says. “He had no coat, just a sweatshirt. I brought him one of my son’s jackets.”

“I lost my house and almost lost my daughter,” he says. “I went from drinking every night to not a lot, then not at all. It meant a lot to me.”

Another reported that he had failed three drug tests, and got a firm reminder that only his honesty kept him from jail time. “The last time I relapsed I fell off the face of the earth,” he admits. And then he said something seldom heard in a courtroom:

“But I’m here now and I want this more than anything.”