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U.S. Army Veteran Pays Forward Healing, Hope Gained at Bay Pines VA

A portrait of a man standing out side on a sunny day. Behind him are the buildings that help make up the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System
Jeffrey Decresie, a former infantryman in the U.S. Army, lived with alcohol dependency for nearly 25 years. After turning to the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System for help, he was able to discover sobriety and a new outlook on life.

The year was 1997 and Jeffrey Decresie had recently separated from active duty in the U.S. Army.

The experiences he lived through during his time in war, combined with an unshakable feeling that he’d left his brothers behind, became the cradle of an alcohol dependency that would take nearly 25 years to shake. At times, Decresie felt solitary in his dark place but when he chose to turn to the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System (BPVAHCS) for aid, his world illuminated.

“When I entered the Substance Abuse Treatment Program (SATP), I was of the mindset that I was there to get help,” Decresie shared. “Anytime I needed something, if it would help me during my journey, the staff would go out of their way to get it. I’m sure they could make more money in the private sector but still, they choose to be here.”

SATP is one of the many resources BPVAHCS offers to Veterans who are on a journey toward recovery. It is a voluntary, 28-day inpatient program that is offered to health care-eligible Veterans who are living with substance use disorder. During a Veteran’s involvement with the program, they are offered evidence-based therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Motivational Interviewing, and Motivational Enhancement Therapy.

“The approach we take with each Veteran is recovery-based and Veteran-centered,” said Todd M. Holliday, LCSW, CAP, program manager for SATP. “We provide both group and individualized care so that we can really understand how to help each Veteran reach their goals in recovery.”

Veterans who are struggling with substance use can contact their primary care provider, or present to building 111, which is located on the Bay Pines VA’s main campus. Additionally, Veterans, or their family members, can reach SATP by calling 727-398-6661, ext. 15898. If a Veteran who is receiving treatment for substance use experiences a relapse, there is no limit to the number of times they can reach out to Bay Pines VA for help.

“We don’t see addiction as being any different from other health issues. It’s a very difficult illness to recover from and it takes a lot of ongoing effort,” Holliday continued. “Once the inpatient program ends, Veterans sit down with staff to determine which type of outpatient treatment would be best for them.”

Once Decresie completed SATP, he chose to continue his recovery in Bay Pines VA’s Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP). He faithfully attends three times a week, for three hours at a time. IOP is certainly a commitment, but Decresie is grateful for the services he’s receiving from Bay Pines VA and plans to continue his journey of self-discovery by paying it forward. His goal is to use the tools he acquired to impart on others his newfound insight; to truly solve an issue, one must return to its genesis.

Something Inside of Me’s Broken

“In the 80’s everyone dreamed of becoming a rockstar,” the Seminole, Florida native recalled. “For a few years after I graduated high school, I went from band to band playing the drums. I was working odd jobs, and wasn’t making much money so, on a whim, I decided to follow in my father’s footsteps. I enlisted in the U.S. Army on Sept. 1, 1987.”

Decresie made his decision in hopes of a steady paycheck and a story he wouldn’t regret. In hindsight, he realizes his choice was more significant than he initially realized.

“As I think back on it, it was something I needed. I was looking for discipline and direction.”

Of his time in the Army, the former infantry soldier shared “I had opportunities to go all over the world, both during training missions and while serving in Desert Storm. I got to see different cultures and it gave me an understanding of other people, how they live, and how they perceive us.”

A decade after joining, Decresie left active duty and chose to join the Florida National Guard, where he would remain until 2004. Armed with a desire to continue serving, he became a sheriff’s deputy with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office shortly after joining the National Guard. Although the trajectory of his life had taken a sharp departure from the aspirations he once held, Decresie’s draw toward self-expression remained intact throughout his time in service.

“Music has always been my passion. I could always relate to it,” Decresie said. “My father was a musician, so I started playing the snare drum in fifth grade. I couldn’t sing that well, but as I got more into lyrics and what I interpreted them to be, I started writing. And I continued even after I joined the military.”

In 2015, Decresie ended his career in law enforcement and shortly thereafter, he found himself descending into a place he never thought he’d be. Perhaps it was the guilt of leaving active duty finally catching up to him, or the weight that comes with constantly adjusting to meet the needs of others; either way, a habit that Decresie once viewed as a casual pastime took root as a disease which slowly began to erode everything around him.

Holding on to Anything That Sets Me Free

“For quite a few years, to include in the military, I was using alcohol a little more than everyone else,” Decresie shared. “I was still able to function and contribute, so to me everything was fine. Then in 2020, my alcohol dependency made me extremely ill. I couldn’t keep weight on or hold a job.”

To endure the unrelenting affliction, Decresie leaned more heavily on what had grown to be a comfort.

“Not only was it a coping mechanism, but it felt like a form of medicine for me,” Decresie shared. “The more I drank, the more I slept. The more I slept, the less I was awake and living with the pain.”

After more than a decade of working in law enforcement, Decresie could easily recognize the signs of addiction. “I was able to recognize those signs in myself but didn’t want to accept it, until my wife sat down with me. She reached a point where my habit made her feel it was best if I didn’t live at home anymore. I went to stay with my parents.”

Decresie’s wife had reached her limit, and it broke his heart.

“To cope with that, I began drinking even more. I just couldn’t relate to the fact that my wife said, ‘either get help or you’re out’,” Decresie recalls. “Then, I finally broke down one day. I went to her crying and said, ‘I need help’.”

Decresie and his wife came to the Bay Pines VA main campus. Unsure of where to start, they went to the Domiciliary and a couple of nurses who were passing by pointed him in the direction of SATP. When they arrived, Decresie was immediately connected to the services he needed.

Sobriety is a requirement of SATP and the Veterans who participate have the freedom to leave should they choose. For Decresie, staying in SATP was not an easy decision but he quickly came to the realization that remaining was better than the alternative - a slow demise from the inside out.

The Night Sky Discovers the Moon

“When I was in SATP, we participated in all different types of therapy. I chose creative writing as one of my therapies,” Decresie said. “I began keeping a journal. I didn’t want to write about all the bad things that have happened; I already know what they are, and I can’t do anything to change it, but I can do everything about the future.”

While reflecting on his own adversity, Decresie recalled a time when a friend he served with confided to Decresie that he’d dealt with suicidal ideations.

“Something clicked. I told him how moved I was by what he told me and asked if he minded if I put it to words,” Decresie shared. “I took what he told me and put it into this poem. Even though I was inspired by my buddy’s experience, I wrote this for everyone. I wrote it because I’ve also felt that way.”

Decresie continued, holding back emotions, “When you’re at war, you operate like everything is fine. Until you get back and it’s just you and your thoughts. For me, my thinking would go deep until I reached the point of ‘This guy’s doing the same thing I am. He’s fighting for his country. Did he have a child? Was he doing this because that felt like his only choice… Did I do the right thing?’ Those realizations stay with you. Then you reach a point where you accept that you do what you must do.”

For those who didn’t serve, they may read Decresie’s poem and feel stricken, but for many who wore the uniform, or loved someone who did, they’ll likely find themselves reflected in his words.

“My whole goal is just to reach somebody,” Decresie said. “I can’t change the world, but if I could help save one life, my mission’s complete.”

A New Peace, Found

Now, nearly four months sober, Decresie appreciates the world of possibilities that have opened for him. As he looks toward his future, his goal is to become a peer support specialist.

“One of the phrases I learned in the program that sticks out to me most is ‘when you heal yourself, everyone heals around you’,” Decresie said. “I’ve always enjoyed helping people and taking my time to teach those who require a little more patience.”

Prior to entering SATP, Decresie would bottle up his hurt and let no one in. Today, he tries his best to see the sunny side of things. Whether it’s as simple as holding the door open for somebody or as touching as penning a poem about preventing Veteran suicide, Decresie remains motivated by the feeling that’s evoked by doing good for others.

“I don’t mean to sound cliché, but this might be my awakening,” Decresie shared. “If I get certified as a peer support specialist and I’m able to sit down with these men and women who also realized they need help and one of them, who previously thought they were alone, realizes that I was once in their shoes, all that I’ve been through will be worth it.” 

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