April 14, 2016

'West Wing' actress with Philly roots works for veterans

Melissa Fitzgerald transitions from Hollywood to Washington

The '90s drama "The West Wing" inspired an ardent cult following among political nerds who adored its idealistic view of Washington, D.C., back when it was still possible to have an idealistic view of Washington, D.C.

It's only fitting then, that even one of the actresses on the show has turned television idealism into real action in the nation's capital.

As a recent Washington Post profile describes, University of Pennsylvania graduate Melissa Fitzgerald spent years using her Hollywood star power to advocate for important causes. She worked with HIV/AIDS patients in South Africa, produced two documentaries about humanitarian crises in Uganda and volunteered on behalf of the Environmental Alliance and the International Medical Corps.

And, most fatefully, she volunteered on behalf of Justice for Vets, an organization devoted to helping troubled veterans who become involved in the criminal justice system.

Melissa Fitzgerald spent seven seasons playing Carol, the assistant to press secretary C.J. Cregg. Fellow cast member Martin Sheen introduced her to the organization, and she even co-produced a documentary about the struggles that veterans face when returning home from war.

Her passion and commitment to the cause were so clear that she got offered the job of executive director, a surprising position for someone who never served in the armed forces.

She does, however, have experience with the criminal justice system: Her father, James Fitzgerald, was a former judge in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas and now serves as senior judge in the Pennsylvania Superior Court. He's advocated for mental health courts and drug courts to help low-level offenders avoid jail.

Justice for Vets supports a very specific type of diversion court: Veterans Treatment Courts, where veterans who have had a brush with the law can get counseling for addiction, mental illness and post-traumatic stress disorder instead of going to jail. The courts are staffed with experts who understand the nuances of dealing with veterans in the justice system and can connect them to a variety of services.

Thanks to Justice for Vets, there are almost 200 veterans courts in the U.S. — including one in Philadelphia.

Fitzgerald's time in Hollywood has given her a bit of a boost in the new job: She got her old castmates from "The West Wing" to film a public service announcement for her organization. Watch below.