Former Marine Gene Santore had a loving family, a thriving business and “lot of money in the bank.”
He nearly lost all of it three years ago when he got arrested for a drug deal and being involved in a robbery.
The Clarks Summit resident served in the Marine corp and in the reserves for six years. He hurt his shoulder in 1989 and had eight surgeries. Santore’s doctors gave him Percocet and Oxycontin to help him deal with the pain, which eventually turned into a serious addiction and led to heroin use later on.
“I was on a 180 milligrams a day of that and after 24 years, it just doesn’t work anymore,” he said. “You resort to the next best cheaper thing, and that’s heroin.”
After spending six months in jail, Santore began participating in the VA Medical Center’s Veteran Justice Outreach program in 2015. Veterans Affairs started the initiative in 2009 and works in collaboration with Lackawanna County Veterans Treatment Court to help incarcerated veterans and those who have been recently released from prison to transition back into society.
The program helps with assistance in finding jobs, housing and repairing damaged relationships through counseling. There are currently 105 veterans participating in the program, which can last 18 months or longer.
Social workers from the VA and probation officers from Lackawanna County also work with veterans who have issues with drug and alcohol abuse to keep them off of drugs and out of prison.
“What helped me is supervision from my probation officer to my case managers down there,” said Santore while sitting outside the VA Medical Center in Plains Township. “All these people genuinely cared to help me, which I never had happen before.”
According to Veterans Treatment Court probation officer Joey Gianacopoulos, many veterans participating in treatment court serve jail time because of alcohol and drug-related offenses such as simple assault or DUI.
“Heroin is definitely playing the biggest role right now,” he said, referring to drug-related arrests among veterans in treatment court. Besides heroin, Gianacopoulos has also seen veterans in the program who are addicted to other opioids, meth, and crack cocaine.
After returning from service, many veterans turn to illicitly-bought prescription medication, street drugs and alcohol to deal with depression and post traumatic stress disorder, according to Crystal Arcarese, a VA supervisor for Social Services, who also oversees the VJO program. VA social workers connect VJO participants with community-based resources such as job programs like PA Career Link and family reunification classes.
“If they come in and it’s a really bad day and they just need to talk, you just talk,” she said. “If it’s a day where they’re ready to start doing some of the work that needs to get done, then we do resource coordination.”
Santore, who graduated from the program in November 2017, was asked to return and serve as a mentor for current participants. He agrees that many veterans can’t deal with the pressures of life when they return from combat, which sometimes leads to drug and alcohol use and crime. Santore has worked with many young veterans in their 20s and 30s, who’ve completed several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“They come back, they’re twisted up,” he said. “We’re trained to show no emotion, no feelings.”
However, the problem is not just restricted to young people. Both Arcarese and Gianacopoulos say that older Vietnam-era veterans struggle with the same issues.
“There’s a good group of younger guys that are from our most recent wars, but on the other hand of that, we actually had a lot of older vets too, so there’s actually no strict demographic,” said Gianacopoulos.
Santore is glad that he can mentor and assist his fellow veterans the same way he was helped. He speaks a few times each month at the VA’s drug and alcohol rehab center-sharing his past experiences and the successes he’s had, because of the program.
“I can’t even express the amount of gratitude I have for all these people,” Santore said. “I’m here today because of this, because of going to jail and this program or I wouldn’t have made it.”