Marine veteran Evan Williams survived four war-torn tours in the Middle East.
But the Pittsburgh man’s days in Iraq and Afghanistan left him with both physical and emotional scars that he masked with pain pills and a hard-drinking lifestyle that quickly caught up with him, he said.
First, a DUI, “And the next thing you know, there’s a warrant for my arrest,” Williams added.
On Monday, Williams and five other veterans – Cambria County’s first graduating Veterans Court class – were honored for how far they’ve battled back from dark days like those.
“We’re here to celebrate, but this is also a challenge,” President Commissioner Douglas Lengenfelder said. “It takes a change of mindset and attitude to change a lifestyle.”
“All of you have proven yourselves before. You can do it again,” he told the graduates, saying it’s now up to them to win “the most important fight” of their lives.
For the veterans, getting here meant months of intensive rehabilitation, counseling and classes in a program coordinated by county, court and veteran agencies.
The county district attorney’s office, President Judge Timothy Creany, himself a Marine vet, and several other agencies started the special court in January after seeing an increased number of veterans lose their way and end up in the court system in recent years.
“We’re seeing the value in this program ... to us here and those who have served us,” Creany said. “Hopefully, this is a turning point in their lives.”
To get this far, veterans chosen to participate in the program, those accused of DUI, petty theft or other nonviolent counts, underwent various counseling and classes tailored to address their individual issues. In many cases, it meant appearing for treatment multiple times a week for each program and oftentimes long days of requirements, District Attorney Kelly Callihan said.
“This was meant to be a tough procedure,” she added.
For Williams, it meant 30 days in rehab, continued alcohol and anger management meetings, counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder and driver safety courses, he said.
It wasn’t always easy, Williams said, but it put him back on a structured path. And after making a pledge to court officials that he’d complete the program, “I knew I would.”
By doing so, a DUI charge against him was withdrawn. He pleaded in court Monday to reckless driving instead and was given a probation term that is now completed for time served.
“Graduating,” he added, “feels like graduating boot camp again.”
“Without this,” Williams said. “I’d probably be dead now.”
The Marine vet recalled his traumatic war experience – a truck in which he was traveling during one mission was hit by a roadside bomb. At another time, a grenade was tossed onto his vehicle but, miraculously, didn’t explode.
He tore ligaments on the battlefield and went through mental anguish. Like many who have fought in such wars, Williams said he held it all in.
“These are guys that are used to taking care of themselves, keeping their (troubles) inside,” he added, saying the graduating class is learning they aren’t alone.
Sometimes “you need shoved” into getting help, Williams said.
“But this has been a weight off my shoulders,” he added, saying he hopes others struggling will benefit from the program the way he has.
VetAdvisor’s Randy Levander hopes so, too.
Levander, a court-appointed advocate in the program, reminded the veterans that helping hands will remain available for them in the years ahead, even after graduation.
“This is about giving another chance ... to the people who took care of our needs, our country’s needs,” Callihan said. “Sometimes good people make mistakes.”
David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/TDDavidHurst.