Former West Wing cast members gathered in Austin at the ATX TV Festival on June 11 to mark the 10-year anniversary of the show’s finale, but discussing efforts to help veterans returning from war was the real message.
The reunited cast, which included Bradley Whitford, Janel Moloney, Richard Schiff, Joshua Malina and Dule Hill, called for the establishment of Veteran Treatment Courts, where substance abuse or mental health treatment is offered as an alternative to incarceration.
Cast member Melissa Fitzgerald, who played C.J. Cregg’s assistant Carol, is now the senior director of Justice for Vets, which leads the national effort to establish Veterans Treatment Courts within reach of every veteran in need.
The actors talked to PEOPLE exclusively about ways to welcome veterans home and thank them for their service by offering programs that help with PTSD and other issues that often plague veterans.
Justice for Vets was launched in 2011, and according to Fitzgerald, “veteran’s treatment courts are enormously successful programs and they reduce crime, save money, honor our veterans in a real way, and return veterans to our communities where we need them. They are real civic assets and communities lose when we don’t have them back home.”
The West Wing, the award-winning political drama that ran for seven years, celebrated and elevated public service and now these cast members, who still consider themselves a tight-knit family, are continuing these roles with their involvement with Justice for Vets.
Hill, who played Charlie Young, praised the efforts of his former co-star.
“Melissa went from playing a character on television who is about civil service to actually taking that leap and will actually go out there and do the work. She now is in the vein of Martin (Sheen), leading the charge towards real action. So whenever she calls and asks us to do anything, I think it’s a no-brainer for us to come and support all of her endeavors because she is the heart of the cast beyond Martin. And it’s always an honor to be a part of,” he tells PEOPLE.
Moloney who played Donna Moss agrees, “Melissa is a powerhouse…and this was who she was before she was on the West Wing, so this is in her blood and she can’t not do something meaningful with her life. She’s on message every second of every day. Those veterans they have a real friend in Melissa Fitzgerald. They they got lucky with this one. They really did.”
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Veterans who have benefited from Fitzgerald’s efforts are also singing her praises.
“When I returned from Iraq, I was lost in a dark and lonely life of isolation and substance abuse,” Tim Wynn, a Philadelphia Veterans Treatment Court graduate who served in the Marine Corps, tells PEOPLE. “With the help of the Philadelphia Veterans Treatment Court, I am living my life the way it was intended to be. I am a proud father and husband.
“I’m also a dedicated college student, as well as a mentor to other veterans who are currently going through Veterans Treatment Court. I have watched Melissa Fitzgerald and Justice for Vets become an organization whom truly work day and night to leave no veteran behind.”
Another veteran, Manny Welch, who served in the Navy, tells PEOPLE, “During one of my first appearances in court, the judge thanked me for my service and the entire team stood up and clapped. I remember looking around and thinking, ‘What kind of court is this?’ I soon learned that I was surrounded by people who were committed to seeing me get the help I needed. The motto ‘leave no veteran behind,’ is true in Veterans Treatment Court. They didn’t give up on me. It saved my life.”