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‘Planting the seed of hope’: Speakers aim to help veterans struggling with substance abuse

Operation Iraqi Freedom Veteran (Matthew Woitunski/WikiCommons)

After he left the Army, Dave Peightal was asked by a man who ran a small, faith-based, 12-step program to help a veteran who was struggling with substance abuse.

Peightal agreed. But when he showed up at a scheduled meeting, he did not see anyone who was in need of help.

Peightal asked where the person was, but then quickly realized he had been “tricked,” he said.

“He held up a mirror to me and said, ‘This is the guy who needs the help,’ ” Peightal said on Wednesday during Veteran Community Initiatives’ 17th annual Veteran Issues Symposium at Asiago’s Tuscan Italian restaurant in Westmont.

It was a transformational moment in Peightal’s life — and in his battle with addiction during and after his time in the military, which included three tours as a combat engineer in Iraq, where he developed post-traumatic stress disorder. He admitted he hid the issue and “bottled it up for 11 years while I was in the Army.”

“When you (serve in combat), you come back with something,” Peightal said. “You leave a piece over there and bring a piece back with you. I came back with real bad post-traumatic stress disorder because of everything — and, in the military, you’re kind of judged on how well you can do push-ups and run and how much you can hold as far as alcohol.”

He has been drug- and alcohol-free since 2013.

“Now, I work with individuals looking for recovery and finding a recovery path that works for them,” Peightal said. “One of my biggest things is just because (a) faith-based 12-step (program) worked for me, it’s not going to work for the next guy or the next girl. I help them find a recovery path or recovery program that works for them.”

Peightal was one of several speakers who talked about mental health and substance abuse on the first day of the two-day VCI symposium.

All of them addressed issues specific to military personnel and veterans, who “are unfortunately at a higher risk for mental health conditions and substance abuse disorder because of that trauma that they experience by serving our country,” Cambria County Drug Coalition Executive Director Natalie Kaufman said.

Jason Rilogio, president of Faces and Voices of Recovery-Western PA, talked about work being done to develop a FAVOR-Laurel Highlands chapter in Johnstown. The organization will be run by people in recovery and offer services after traditional business hours.

“I’m real big on the only way somebody can find recovery is through another person in recovery, kind of planting the seed of hope,” Rilogio said.

Cambria County District Attorney Gregory Neugebauer and Cambria County Senior Judge Timothy Creany provided an update on Cambria County Veterans Court, a program designed to assist veterans who have gotten into low-level legal trouble that is almost always rooted in some kind of substance-abuse issue.

“There’s a lot of value to the community in terms of the resources that are used to reduce the recidivism,” Neugebauer said. “That’s a big number that we’ve seen a good drop in the recidivism rate. …

“At the end of the day, we’re taking care of lower-level crime and getting to the reason why those crimes are being committed and what we can do to make that person far less likely to repeat that activity … and then we don’t have to go through the expense and the cost of prosecuting, incarcerating sometimes, those people that really just needed some help, and they have the wherewithal and the internal ability to take that help and to make themselves a better person.”

Creany estimates the veterans court has saved the county about $1.6 million in expenses, including the cost of housing prisoners, throughout its existence.

“First of all, we’re working with people who deserve help,” Creany said. “We’re addressing the problems so we don’t see them back again, and we’re saving money in the process. It’s a win all the way around.”

The second day of the symposium on Thursday will deal with suicide prevention. It is scheduled to run from 8:30 a.m. until 3:15 p.m. Anybody who assists veterans, including personal family caregivers, can attend the event at Asiago’s, 709 Edgehill Drive.


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