Veterans helping veterans at SCI-Houtzdale

The Veterans Service Unit at the State Correctional Institute at Houtzdale is a place filled with men from all backgrounds: the army, navy, air force, marines and coast guard. (WJAC)

HOUTZDALE - The Veterans Service Unit at the State Correctional Institute at Houtzdale is a place filled with men from all backgrounds: the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard.

But now, they all wear the same uniform.

The VSU helps veteran inmates with reentry into society and connects them with the benefits they earned from their service.

Chris Reed, the Facility Veterans Coordinator, said the VSU was established in 2016 with just 30 veteran inmates. It's one of only three in the state.

"We established 30 guys who we thought would bring good continuity to come down," Reed said. "They helped organize it and basically set the foundation for what we have here today."

Reed said the unit now houses about 132 veteran inmates.

The program helps assist veterans with their reentry needs by focusing housing, employment, treatment and healthcare.

Veterans Service Unit Manager Craig Petulla said the VSU is comprised of three different platoons; the red, white and blue.

"The blue platoon is for our long-term offenders, greater than 36 months until potential release," Petulla said. "Though they are not nearing a release, they've found a purpose in being able to aid in the facilitation of reentry services to the red and white platoon members."

Petulla said 90 percent of those incarcerated will go home at some point.

But also inside the VSU, is a small percentage who won't.

Matthew, a blue platoon member, was convicted of second-degree murder in 1995 and has been incarcerated ever since. He was active duty in the Navy when he was arrested at 20-years-old.

Gary, a blue platoon member, was convicted of first-degree murder and other associated crimes in 1998.

Both are now facilitators in the VSU and dedicating their lives to helping other veterans prepare for release.

"There's a common goal to get out, but not only get out, that's the easy part. Staying out, that's what the goal is," Matthew said. "The goal is to stay out of prison, not come back and become e a productive member of society."

Gary and Matthew both said helping their fellow veterans get ready to leave Houtzdale is a way of fulfilling their commitment to the service they dishonored years ago.

"The biggest thing it's given me is a healthy sense of purpose," Gary said. "Because of the length of my sentence, for me it makes the time go easier having something positive and healthy that I can participate in and help other guys."

Petulla said 28 inmates have went through the program at Houtzdale and are now back out in society.

Robert Smith, 71, of Harrisburg, was released from the VSU in December. Smith currently lives at Tomorrow's Hope in Coalport, a facility that provides transitional housing for veterans.

Smith fought in the Vietnam War in 1966, served in the 25th infantry division in 1967 and 765th security platoon in 1968,

"I came back with a problem. I became addicted to opium over there when I was in the security unit because I had a lot of free time and that plagued me ever since," Smith said.

Smith said his drug addiction became a way of life. It led him to commit robberies at banks and other businesses.

He's spent the past 40 years of his life in and out of state and federal prisons.

About 16 months ago, Smith was transferred to the VSU at Houtzdale.

"I know it's prison, but it's an opportunity to get out of prison before you leave prison," Smith said.

Smith served as a motivational speaker in the VSU and took different classes that prepared him for where he is today.

"One of the biggest things that helped me was seeking safety. It was a course taught by a psychologist who connected PTSD with substance abuse," Smith said. "I learned so much more about myself and how a lot of things happened over the decades of drug activity."

Smith now spends five days a week at the VA Medical Center in Altoona. Through help from the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, he plans to go back to school to become a peer support specialist.

"I hope I can contribute in a positive way the rest of my life," Smith said.

Officials said the recitacion rate in Pennsylvania is around 80 percent. For people who go through programs like the VSU, it's around 15 percent.

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