Pa. veteran hit bottom, but God, family and music are pulling him up
Also see: Veterans courts increasing nationally
Matt Plever was losing everything.
He was a veteran, a husband, a father, but his accomplishments were drowned
out by the haze of alcohol and, though he didn’t know it, PTSD.
He returned from Iraq in 2005 as a different person, a chip on his shoulder and anger in his heart.
He watched the nightly news, the deaths of servicemen seemingly glossed over.
People’s offers of gratitude for his service felt empty and he resented them.
He would go to the bar, drink and pick a fight.
The downward spiral continued until Plever had an altercation with police in September 2011. He went to a VA medical center where he was treated for PTSD.
From there, he ended up in veterans court with an opportunity to trade jail time for rehabilitation.
Today, Plever, of Etters, says he’s living his life guided by God, looking forward, not back.
The road he’s traveled — from facing jail time to embarking on a budding country music career — has “refined him,” his wife Alicia said.
Matt and Alicia Plever were high school sweethearts, though they attended rival schools. He graduated from Cedar Cliff High School in 1999, she from Red Land.
He wanted a job in federal law enforcement and took a semester of classes at Harrisburg Area Community College. He quickly learned college wasn’t for him, and he enlisted in the military.
“Military is the fast track to where I want to be,” he thought. He joined the Air Force in 2000, serving with the protective services unit.
Music had always been in the background of Plever’s life.
As a boy, he listened as Kentucky Rain played over and over on his grandmother’s 8-track player.
Songwriters like Elvis Presley and others who told a story with their music were always his favorites.
At Andersen Air Force Base in the South Pacific, he met a weapons instructor who played the guitar. Plever listened in awe. He watched how the man’s talent commanded attention when he played at the bar.
“I loved the idea that he would sit up there with his Jack and coke and his Marlboro Lights would be right there,” and people listened, Plever said.
It wasn’t until years later, when Plever was 25 and working at Andrews Air Force Base, that he picked up a guitar.
He learned to play the basic cords after looking them up on the Internet.
In time, he started writing his own music.
“As I lived life longer, I had a lot more to write about,” he said.
Rough times in Iraq
Shortly after Plever arrived in Iraq in September 2004, he wrote home to Alicia.
“I said, ‘I pissed myself today,’” he recalled writing.
Less than 1,500 meters from where he was standing, a bomb exploded.
“It was nowhere near me,” he said, but it sounded like it was right next to him. “I about had a heart attack.”
Among the assignments he had was identifying bodies.
“We’d stuff cotton in our noses,” Plever said.
Sometimes the body bags would “be baking in the sun” for hours before he opened them to identify the person or parts of a person inside.
Plever said transitioning back to life after war was difficult.
“I seek the rush,” Plever said. “It’s just that you find out the rush isn’t all that once it’s gone.”
A brutal return home
Shortly before his deployment to Iraq was over, Plever got a call from home. His father was dying from cancer.
“I panicked because it was my dad, but I felt guilty leaving,” Plever said.
He felt allegiance to his brothers in arms, but he wanted out of Iraq.
“It was just crazy there and you wanted to get home to see your family,” he said. “People can say what they want, no one wants to be there, really. The guys who are like ‘oorah,’ get killed.
“You get tired of hearing bombs and eating crappy food. You get tired in general and you want to see your family.”
When Plever got back from Iraq, he took 30 days of vacation before returning to work, assigned to protective services at Andrews. But life wasn’t the same as before.
“When I got back from Iraq, I had this thing where I thought I was better than everybody,” Plever said.
He was filled with pride and self pity. Though he drank before he was in Iraq, it didn’t get him into trouble.
After returning, he would go out to a bar and get into fights.
“My friends were scared to hang out with me,” he said. “Someone would say something to me at a bar and I’d break a pool stick over their head.”
Alicia would hide his guns when he was drinking.
By that time, Plever had started playing his guitar more, writing songs and developing his talent.
“I would use my guitar to pick up girls,” he said. “I had an affair with this girl because my wife was like, ‘What’s going on with you?’” he said.
Alicia took the children and moved out.
“The reality would set in, ‘What am I doing? I’m married and I’ve got kids,’” he said. “But I couldn’t deal with it. My wife was gone, this (other woman) had had enough. I went to the bank and took out $5,000. I was gonna go to Mexico and kill drug dealers. This stuff you would think was in a movie, it was in my head.”
Instead of going to Mexico, Plever took the other woman and went to a hotel. When she left, Plever thought about killing himself. He put a gun in his mouth, but something stopped him.
The voice was distinct.
“I wasn’t short on guts to do it,” Plever said. “But it’s when I believe God intervened in my life.”
Plever said Jesus told him killing himself would be the most selfish thing he could do.
He didn’t pull the trigger.
Jesus “changed my heart that day,” Plever said.
But he still had a ways to go.
The turning point
Although Plever doesn’t remember them himself, the events of Sept. 17, 2011 would set him on the path to healing.
He’s heard accounts from his wife and from police, but he still doesn’t know exactly what happened that night.
Plever got into an altercation in Mechanicsburg. He ended up jumping in front of a police car.
The officers got Alicia’s number from him. When they called her, the first thing they asked was if he had PTSD.
He was restrained, then transported to a trauma center in Harrisburg, he said.
When he awoke the next afternoon, he said, he knew he had a problem with PTSD. He went voluntarily to the VA Medical Center in Coatesville, where he was treated for a month.
‘It was divine intervention’
After his stay in Coatesville, Plever was facing a minimum one-year stay in prison for a previous DUI in York County. York attorney Doug Bare got Plever into DUI court in January 2012. A month later, the York County veterans court was created, and he was transitioned to that.
Heather Lape, Plever’s probation officer, said Plever, the first combat veteran from Iraq or Afghanistan to be admitted to veterans court, is one of 14 veterans she supervises.
If he stays on track — meaning no legal trouble, no positive results from random drug tests, and he continues counseling — Plever will graduate from veterans court in August.
“He’s done really well,” Lape said. “What’s keeping him on track is his spirituality, that’s what’s keeping him clean and sober.”
Plever agreed that his faith, and his family, have been his support.
He has mended his relationship with Alicia and they are expecting their fourth child. Alicia said she found strength in the Lord through all the turmoil, keeping in mind the promise she made when she said her marriage vows.
Recently, Plever made an album in Nashville with the help of songwriter and producer Joltin’ Jim McCoy.
Although McCoy said he hasn’t heard the final album cuts, he believes Plever has the makings to be successful.
“If he gets the right connections and the right promotion, I think he can go a long way,” McCoy said from his office in West Virginia. “It’s going to be a lot of work, but if he does it now, I think he has the chance to make it.”
Plever said he knows his journey has been part of God’s plan, and it was during the darkest moments that God was working on him the most.
“It was divine intervention,” Plever said. “There’s no other way.”
Every day, he said, he has choices.
“There’s a battle between good and evil. Which side you choose daily determines your life and your eternity,” he said. “I’ve been in rehab after rehab, counseling session after counseling session. Without Christ, there’s no foundation.”
Listen to Matt Plever on iTunes and follow him on Facebook
Although Matt Plever isn’t signed with a record label yet, he recorded an album in Nashville recently. His album debuted on iTunes Feb. 5. Listen to a preview of each song or buy the album, “Best Thing I’ve Done Wrong,” there. For more information about Plever and his music, visit his Facebook page, www.facebook.com/MattPleverMusic.
The album features eight tracks. Plever wrote or co-wrote all the tracks. His friend, Randy Wehry, helped write “Daddy Move the Sun” and “Soldiers Don’t Come Back From War.” The latter song, Plever said, is about struggling with PTSD.
“I’d like to dedicate ‘Soldiers Don’t Come Back From War’ to all the combat veterans, but in particular, the family members who have to deal with these guys when they come back and wreak havoc,” Plever said.
He said he will donate a portion of the proceeds from the sale of that song to the York County veterans court. Joltin’ Jim McCoy, who has worked with country artists like Patsy Cline and Ernest Tubb, helped Plever get the album recorded.
“There’s very few people who can write (music) and perform,” McCoy said, “and he can do both.”
Russell oversaw the drug and mental health courts in Buffalo, N.Y., explained Chris Deutsch, the director of communications for Justice For Vets. As more veterans came through the system, Russell “began to ask himself, ‘What can we do differently to help these folks?’”
The answer: create a veterans treatment court, a rehabilitative alternative to jail time that is specific to the needs of veterans who have PTSD or a traumatic brain injury that could have played a role in their crime.
Today, there are more than 100 veterans treatment courts nationwide, Deutsch said, estimating the total at about 130.
Still, “we’re not doing enough to serve these men and women who have served us,” Deutsch said.
“One of the problems is there is there is no way to track the number of veterans incarcerated,” thus no way to determine how many veterans could have been considered for a veterans treatment program, he said
Deutsch said the program is tough for veterans to complete. A veteran accepted into the court must attend counseling, appear for regular court dates, pass drug or alcohol testing and obey other rules established by the judge.
“I think sometimes people fail to understand exactly what accountability means,” Deutsch said. “Is holding them accountable putting them in a jail cell, or is it accountability to ask them to look at why they committed a crime?”
About 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer from PTSD or some other mental health issue, Deutsch said. At least 345,000 veterans who have served since 9/11 suffer with substance abuse issues, he said. Other sources cite similar statistics.
The value of rehabilitating veterans isn’t just for the veteran and their family.
“These are men and women who have not only volunteered to serve their country, but in doing so have learned the values of honor, duty, respect, discipline,” Deutsch said. “They’re heroes in their community, they’re some of our best.
“When we allow veterans who are struggling to fall through the cracks, and never get connected to the benefits they’ve earned … we’re certainly missing out on transforming these individuals back and giving them the opportunity to achieve their potential as pillars of their community.”
Learn more about Justice For Veterans
Chris Deutsch, the director of communications for Justice For Vets, said he wants to see a veterans treatment program within reach of every veteran who needs it.
More information about Justice For Vets is available at the organization’s website, www.justiceforvets.org