Fighting back: An Iraq War vet battles substance abuse, personal demons and reality on his road to redemption

Iraq War veteran Matt Hallman in engrossed in a personal civil war: a fight between the soldier he was, and the addict he became. And he's surrounded by mentors who won't let him lose. Charles Mostoller/METRO
Iraq War veteran Matt Hallman in engrossed in a personal civil war: a fight between the soldier he was, and the addict he became. And he’s surrounded by mentors who won’t let him lose.
Credit: Charles Mostoller, Metro

High on heroin, the former Army infantryman missed his name.

Hunched in a pew in a Philadelphia courtroom in early June, the hollow-eyed, rail-thin soldier’s head hung forward. Drool dripped down his chin.

“Matthew Hallman,” the clerk repeated.

The stringy-haired, sullen-faced man blinked. His mouth gaped. The lids barely lifted around his blood-shot eyes.

The clerk’s gaze fell upon him. She turned and threw her arms at the judge.

“Matt needs to go up,” interrupted Guy Garant, the city prosecutor.

Hallman staggered to his feet.

Garant’s gaze shifted to the folder: DUI. Car crash. Heavy drug use. Veteran. Two tours, Iraq war.

He peered back and tugged at his glasses. Here’s the question: Is he – like other veterans who suffer through post-traumatic stress, substance abuse, and mental and physical anguish – a criminal? And, more importantly, will his addiction consume him, or can he fight back?

With a guide, Hallman stumbled in front of mustached Veterans Court Judge Patrick Dugan.

Hallman shivered. He hugged himself.

“This guy isn’t going to survive,” Garant muttered to himself.

Dugan snapped.

He pointed.

“Look, if you ever come back into my courtroom like this again,” he said, “I’m throwing you in jail.

Matt shook.

Garant leaned in close.

“We’re not really gonna throw you in jail, we’re just trying to scare you,” he whispered. “But you need to get help.”

The Flag

Three months later a group formed in the center of the empty courtroom: the prosecutor with a hand in his suit pocket; the public defender with her hands full of paperwork; the therapist wearing his backpack; a parole officer with his thick glasses; a mentor holding his rolled-up paper.

Veterans Court is a flag. A wake-up call. A male or female who served their country is on the brink of physical violence, overdose or death, and breaks the law. The prosecutor and defense attorney agree on a rehabilitation plan and direct them toward members of the circle: Here’s your help. Here are your mentors. Now get back on your feet.

If they refuse to change, they receive judgment. Some succeed, others don’t. Most flutter between rock bottom and resurrection.

So, what about Matt Hallman?

Smiles grew.

Luckily for Matt Hallman, he crashed into a wall.

The Wall

On his 34th birthday, April 19, 2012, Hallman hopped into his 2004 Ford Explorer.

In those days he had two speeds: sick and looking for a score, or high. On April 19, he was sick. He was scratching to “get right.”

Navigating Aramingo Avenue, he dropped his phone. While one arm was on the wheel, the other danced on the floor mat.

He pulled his eyes off the road as the truck climbed the I-95 on-ramp.

“Got it,” he said.

He looked up just in time to see the guardrail.

His face smacked the steering wheel, and bounced off the dashboard. He reached for the glove box and pulled out some napkins and held them to his face. He opened the door and fell out of his truck.

When the police arrived he was sitting on the side of his vehicle, napkins stained red.

“Are you drunk or high?”

“No.”

Apparently he gave permission for police to pull his blood, but he doesn’t remember.

Surgeons at Hahnemann University Hospital welded titanium plates to orbital bones, the upper lip and forehead. Wired his Jaw shut for six months.

A year later state police charged him with a DUI.

He dropped in and out of courtrooms, but never entered a jail cell.

Even after he showed up to Veterans Court, high as a drone.

Highest needs

Guy Garant poked at his General Tso chicken, trying to explain.

“The thing about Matt was that he was always polite,” he said. “And always admitted that he needed help.”

He wiped his mouth.

“I figured the program was not worth its weight if it couldn’t help the veterans with the highest needs,” he said. “Any program can deal successfully with low needs individuals, but a program is truly successful if it can deal with the high needs individuals.”

‘My father is my hero’

With a cigarette in one hand, a coffee in the other, Matt sat on a bench in a park near the Community College of Philadelphia. A break before class. He returned to school this fall to study biochemistry.

When Matt was still overseas, inside his parent’s Center City home, his mother committed suicide. So Matt wants to learn about how drugs affect the brain. His mother was on anti-depressants when she died.

He wants to understand and hopefully force change, “So that things that happened, to like my mom, doesn’t happen at all,” he said.

He flicked his cigarette.

He’s worried about his father. Ray Hallman is a diabetic, and Matt is worried about his dad’s diet.

“Losing my dad is a huge fear,” he said. “My father is my hero.”

He’s stuck on the eventualities of human life.

“I know what it’s like to lose a parent, and I’ve gotten so close to my dad that I think it’s going to be harder for me than it was to lose my mother. I’ve grown so much closer to my dad than I ever was to my mom.”

“And I’m scared to go through that again.”

‘I miss the adrenaline’

Matt reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes and started walking along the leafy, brick-laid path winding though the campus of the University of Pennsylvania.

War couldn’t have been all bad, right? Do you ever miss any of it?

“I miss the adrenaline,” he said.

He veered right, toward the Veterans Affairs Medical Center at 42nd and Woodland Streets where every morning he receives a shot of methadone, the dose of opiates that are supposed to help wean him off his addiction to opiate-based drugs. Namely heroin and prescription pain killers. His treatment is supposed to end by Christmas.

When soldiers rode the bird for an air assault mission, he said, he liked to listen to “Voodoo Child” by Jimmie Hendrix.

“It’s all blacked out,” Matt said, his arms spread wide.

The countdown started at 10.

The anxiety began to grow. Images flashed. Memories blinked. Focus narrowed. Pulse quickened.

Then came the green light. Soldiers flew.

He lit the tip of the cigarette.

“There’s just no feeling like that in the world,” he said, “In a helicopter, over power lines, flying low. You know you’re going out to do something extraordinary and you have to be very precise when you’re going out to get somebody.”

He took a drag from the cigarette.

“And you just feel gigantic.”

He exhales.

“And it’s crazy, because it’s war,” he said. “But every guy wants to be hanging off the side of a helicopter. Sometimes I felt like I was in a movie.”

Smoke curls in the air.

“It’s just absolute excitement.”

He takes a drag.

“It’s like a cascade.”

He exhales.

“Your heart’s going a mile a minute.”

Smoke rises.

“You’re so finely tuned to everything. You’re so sharp. Everything is so clear. You are hearing and seeing everything. Paying attention to everything. Everything is just so in the front of your mind.”

He paused.

“It’s like being high,” he said. “It’s like being high.”

Ray

Ray Hallman pulled out the glass door of a Center City coffee shop, and waved through some customers.

Sporting an Oxford shirt with a yellow-striped tie wrapped under a tan sport coat, Matt’s father waved his hands like a professor and worked the room like a police commissioner.

He chose a small, round table in the corner and sat with his back to the window.

He crossed his left leg over his right.

Gosh, he was, let’s see, a cop for 33 years. He’s now head of security at the University of the Arts.

How do you think Matt’s doing?

“Matt,” he said. “He’s my hero.”

He swirls the coffee in his cup.

“What he’s seen and what’s he gone through, I saw the change in him when he came home. I saw him lose his confidence. But I’ve seen the change in him now.”

Veterans Court?

He shook his head. “That Judge,” he chuckled.

“I think they really took a liking to him,” he said. “I think they have really helped him.

“They care.”

He took a sip.

“He’s come a long way,” he said, “And he has a lot further to go. He knows he’s an addict, and I think he’s come to terms with that.”

“Matt sees the people at the methadone clinic,” waving his hand and turning his head. He strokes his white goatee.

“He sees how lost they are.”

He took a sip.

“Some people said kick him out.”

He waved his hand. “Well, what would that prove? He’ll end up dead on the street. No. He’s my son. And I won’t give up on him. You gotta keep fighting.”

“It’s been hard for him, he’s struggled. The losses have been hard on him.”

On Matt’s second tour he was 26, and the other soldiers were in their late teens and early 20s. They looked up to him.

That night, that fateful night, Matt was supposed to be in the fourth car in the caravan, but his buddy jumped up in front.

Ray shook his head.

“I can hear him,” he said. “Sometimes he wakes up in the middle of the night.

“Screaming.”

The Last Drop

Inside The Last Drop coffee house in Washington Square West, with his back to the windows, wrapped in a black T-shirt that stretches “Join!” atop a picture of a Star Wars Storm Trooper, Sgt. Matthew Hallman lined up a plastic iced-coffee cup, a Samsung smartphone, a spoon and a pint glass.

“Around dinner time,” he said, “with nightfall covering Iraq, we turned the corner onto a dirt road.”

The middle car is not in a straight line with the cars in front and back of it.

“You have to make sure you constantly change tactics,” he said as he dragged the phone and the spoon out of line, “Because once they see you doing the same thing over and over. …”

His friend, Sgt. Conrad Alvarez, was commander of the fourth truck. Mike Matlock, the really big, skinny black kid, you know, the really funny kid with the great smile who brought a lot of laughter and energy, he was the gunner on the fourth truck. His head poked out from the bubble on top of the armored Humvee.

Matt was the commander and gunner and his head poked out of the bubble on the third truck.

“My truck cleared and as soon as Alvarez’s truck came up and turned the corner. …”

Matt watched an explosive-filled projectile spit hot copper – think lava – and watched it bounce through the vehicle like flubber.

He got on the radio and frantically dispatched: “Al’s truck is hit, its hit. It’s bad.”

He got out, ran toward the truck, and opened the door.

Alvarez lost his head; the medic in the back, too.

The driver tried to administer a tourniquet on Matlock to stop the bleeding.

“But we didn’t realize that basically we were working on a leg, and that was it.”

Matlock was almost entirely cut in half.

“It was such direct hit,” he shook his head, “They aimed the charge so well, that it punched through three layers of reinforced safety glass. And decapitated both of them.”

There was only a little piece of jaw hanging from the medic’s neck.

Matt slipped the phone back in his pocket, and sipped the last few drops of coffee.

“Alvarez just turned 19.”

‘Identify the demon’

Tyler Hurst sat in his suit and thick glasses and black hair gelled into a swirl in a windowsill inside the Criminal Justice Center and tapped his legs against the granite.

He’s the example. He identified the demon.

Hurst, 29, worked the second largest gun the Army carries. Joined the military at 17. His parents signed a waiver. He also smoked, snorted and shot up as many drugs as you can fathom. Fifteen years in and out of every bottle and needle he could find. His first marriage was spoiled toxic by abuse.

“Veterans Court gave me a second chance,” he said. “I think this is what veterans court is all about. It gave me the time to get my act together. And to show that I can do better.”

The last time he used was Jan. 12, 2012.

He’s now a therapist in the drug treatment court, which works similar to Veterans Court, and he mentors other young people in recovery.

Here’s his advice: “Identify the demon. That negative emotion they’re battling either consciously or subconsciously, that needs to be offset by the high. Understand the issue, educate on addiction, and find the resources to fight back.”

But what battle is worse? Beating the addiction, or facing life sober?

“The two really go hand in hand,” he said.

He crossed his legs.

“I express this to my members all the time. If you just stop using drugs, you’re not really changing your life. You’re just not using anymore.”

He taps one finger at a time: “You’re probably still hanging out with the same people that are going to get you in the same trouble, and in the same places that will lead you to the same future.”

“And it will continue until you really change your life to be centered around things that are more positive.”

‘I can do it’

Matt Hallman stood at the bottom of the steps that lead to the West building.

He’s having trouble with calculus. He needs a tutor.

He recently relapsed.

Typically, before a quiz or test, he’ll give himself 10 minutes to sit quietly and pump himself up.

“I tend to get real nervous about things, and then choke,” he said. “I’ll know the material, but I’ll get myself so worked up and nervous that I’ll forget and make really dumb mistakes.”

Matt flicked his cigarette and squeezed the straps of his camouflage backpack.

“I can do it,” he said.

The rise

“Matthew Hallman.”

Judge Patrick Dugan sneaked a smile.

“Present,” Hallman said.

Decked out in a pressed blue suit, he popped up, squeezed past his neighbors, and bounced to the prosecutor’s table.

“Who are you?” Dugan deadpanned.

Hallman shook off a sheepish smile. “I knew you’d say something,” he said.

Dugan chuckles.

“You look like a professional,” Dugan said.

“How are you?”

“I’m good, how are you?”

“Alright, man,” Dugan said. “How you doing?”

“Uh, well.”

Hallman pulls at his fingers.

“I’m a little excited, uh, in a couple more weeks I start school.”

Dugan interrupts: “I’m sure those professors are gonna love it.”

People chuckle.

Hallman mumbles.

“Well, I have clean urines. … Basically, things are looking up. I’m doing well, sir.”

Dugan begins.

“Oh,” Hallman blurts.

Too late.

“And I signed up for Red, White and Blue team. So I’m training everyday. I started to go back to the gym. I ran TWO miles yesterday, TWO miles the other day.”

He pauses.

“Albeit, very slow.”

People chuckle.

“But I did the two miles,” he said. “And then they have a 9/11 memorial race in New York on September 11 so I’m going up for that.”

“Is that a 5k?” Guy Garant asks.

“It’s a 5 K but for me it’s going to be more like a 1.5 K.”

People chuckle.

Public Defender Melissa Stango apologized: “We keep forgetting to show you judge, we have a picture of Matt when he first came home.”

“Oh, yeah,” Hallman said. “You should see that. Some people think I actually airbrushed my head onto another body.”

Laughs scatter.

“I can’t imagine you would have done that,” Dugan said. “I can’t imagine.”

Peg Maynard of the VA said one of the therapy groups Matt does well in was changed to Wednesday morning, which conflicts with his schedule to show up in Veterans Court for his weekly check-in.

Maybe mix it up with him, Dugan said. How long is the session?

“It starts at 10 a.m.,” Hallman said. “Depending on the group dynamics. … Sometimes it ends, you know -”

Layup: “Like if you hit the floor,” Dugan said, “It’ll be two and a half.”

Big laugh.

They negotiate.

“Go to that meeting,” Dugan said. “But I’ll see you back here soon.”

Dugan points.

“Keep it up.”

___________________

Follow Tommy Rowan on Twitter: @tommyrowan

Follow Metro Philadelphia on Twitter: @metrophilly

Follow Metro Philadelphia on Facebook: Metro Philadelphia



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