Army vet battled post-deployment demons until childhood friend became casualty of his personal war
By PETER CAMERON | The Times-Tribune, Scranton, Pa. | Published: March 26, 2017
EDITOR'S NOTE: After this story was published, the Times-Tribune of Scranton, Pa. received messages from soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan with Army veteran Matthew Gajdys and said he lied about being in combat. Gajdys admitted to the lie, and said he embellished other aspects of his story. Read more details here.
SCRANTON, Pa. (Tribune News Service) — Matthew Gajdys came out of the Army at war with himself.
After tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, he returned to Dickson City in 2012 and struggled to return to civilian life.
He couldn't find steady work. He was angry, impulsive and drinking more than a case of Coors Light every day. He started bar fights as a release for his frustration. His undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder made him a stranger to his wife. She kicked him out.
Homeless and hopeless, Gajdys was rescued by a childhood friend. Mike Evans opened the Moscow trailer park home he shared with his 8-year-old son to the troubled veteran.
When Gajdys moved in, his demons came with him.
Four months later, Gajdys was in jail and Evans was dead.
Crews and corpses
Raised on a Montrose farm, Gajdys joined the Army in 2006 to become a mechanic. Always good with his hands, he passed the required exams and prepared to deploy to the Middle East.
"My family kept telling me, 'If you do aviation (mechanics), it's safer,'" said Gajdys, now 35. "'You get to stay on the base. You'll never leave.'"
Instead, as a specialist, Gajdys was assigned to a team that recovered downed attack helicopters.
"No one wanted to do that job, including me," he said.
The missions were dangerous. When an aircraft crashed, Gajdys flew out with the medics to retrieve the crews -- or their corpses -- then salvage or destroy the machinery and weapons. Gajdys said he recovered about a dozen helicopters in his two tours.
"You don't know the good guys from the bad guys because they all look the same," he said. "There's no different uniform. Everybody looks exactly the same and everybody's got a gun. You don't know that it's a bad guy until he starts shooting at you."
Gajdys shot and killed people. He took a bullet to the chest, but his body armor saved him.
"It's not fun to get shot at," he said. "After you do it long enough, you kind of get immune to it."
He completed a tour high up in the Afghan mountains, where "you get short of breath tying your shoes," then received an ultimatum from his wife: leave the Army or she would leave him.
Choosing the marriage over his military career, Gajdys came home to Dickson City.
"I wasn't aware of the way the military had affected me," he said. "To me, I was still me. To my wife, I wasn't. I had changed. Things were different. I was bitter and angry and I couldn't find a job. I didn't know about PTSD. I didn't know about combat stress."
Gajdys was short-tempered and paranoid. He couldn't sleep, so he drank to put himself out. His rage led to fights with strangers and loved ones. He slept outside and spent other nights on friends' couches.
Then Evans stepped up.
'He looked broken'
Evans lived in a used trailer he bought for $2,000. A single father, he worked construction jobs to pay the bills. Money was tight, but he bought school supplies for children in his trailer park and helped neighbors after a fire destroyed their trailer.
"Mike never worried about day-to-day stuff," his father, Jim Evans, said with chuckle. "The one thing Mike worried about was his son."
His son, Michael, was his "pride and joy," said Mike Evans' mother, Kimberly Evans.
"Mike was the peacemaker," she said. "He did things for others that normal people just don't do anymore."
Eventually, Gajdys exhausted Mike Evans' hospitality.
"I was drinking more than a normal person should ingest in probably a lifetime," Gajdys said. "I was spending all my money at the bar."
Evans planned to ask Gajdys to leave, but hesitated to turn away a friend with nowhere to go.
Gajdys was still living in the trailer on Evans' birthday on Feb. 14, 2013. Gajdys convinced him to go out and celebrate a few nights later.
Gajdys is hazy on some details of that night, but others he remembers all too well: He started drinking before noon. He and Evans stopped at several bars around the county and ended up at the Grandview, a strip club in Covington Twp. Afterward, Gajdys steered the Jeep in front of a tractor-trailer.
Evans was killed instantly. He was 33.
A test showed Gajdys' blood alcohol level to be 0.199, more than two times the state's legal limit of 0.08.
Gajdys said he woke up in a hospital bed with "a couple of bangs and bruises." The agony came when he was told of his friend's fate.
"It was the first time I ever accidentally killed someone," he said.
Word of Evans' death was even more wrenching for his parents because he had told his father he didn't want to go out that night, fearing the consequences. His mother stayed up praying for his safety. The immediate anger they had for Gajdys faded when they saw him on the TV news.
He "looked broken," Jim Evans said. "There's no doubt in our mind that he died some that day too. When we saw his face the night the state police brought him out of the barracks, you could see it in his eyes."
Soldier to soldier
Gajdys spent a little more than a year in Lackawanna County Prison.
Both Gajdys and the Evans family said they feel the military shares some of the blame for the tragedy.
"To this day, I blame the military for my son's death as much as I do Matt ... " Jim Evans said. "I wish there was a way to indict the military. If they would have taken care of Matt when he came home, maybe we wouldn't be in this position now."
Several transitional programs have been in place since 2012, as well as a newer Resilience Training, which helps veterans build life skills in areas like mental agility, optimism, self-awareness and self-regulation, said Army spokeswoman Tatjana Christian.
Anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq have PTSD every year, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates.
Gajdys entered the Lackawanna County Veterans Court after his release from jail. He was ordered to find a home group and sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous. The court paired him with his veteran mentor, Victor Ortalano, a former Marine who served in Vietnam.
The court and Ortalano, who battled his own addiction, helped, Gajdys said.
Started in 2009, the first veterans court in the state found success in helping arrested former soldiers turn around their lives. While Lackawanna County Prison has a recidivism rate of more than 50 percent, graduates of the veterans court have reoffended at a rate of about 18 percent, said Barbara Durkin, the court's coordinator.
The county's treatment courts offer a potential expunging of charges or shortened sentences if participants complete counseling and treatment for things like addiction and mental health disorders. They also must stay out of trouble. Jail looms for those who get arrested again or fail to meet the program's stringent requirements.
Gajdys credits the court and mentorship program with saving his life.
"It's a soldier opening up to another soldier," he said. "You can relate back and forth. I wasn't in Vietnam and he wasn't in Iraq, but we both fought in war. We know what it's like to be shot at, and have friends die, and the heartache and the stuff that you go through."
Gajdys said he quit drinking the day he went to jail and has been sober for four years. He completed eight weeks of intensive PTSD therapy, learning strategies for overcoming its self-destructive symptoms.
The forgiveness offered by the Evans family shocked him.
"I don't know if it was me, and it was my child, if I could have done that," he said, fiddling with a pack of Marlboro menthols. "I don't think I could have."
At the request of the Evans family, prosecutors dropped a charge that would have meant a three-year minimum sentence in state prison for Gajdys. Instead, a judge sentenced him to time served, plus 1,000 hours of community service speaking to at-risk groups about the dangers of untreated PTSD and drunk driving.
"We didn't care how long he spent in jail," Jim Evans said. "We wanted him to tell his story. If someone else's life could be saved, it makes it a little easier to take what happened."
Debt must be paid
Gajdys has reached a cease-fire in his personal war.
The shaggy-bearded, dead-eyed man from his mugshot is now a positive, productive new father. His first-born, a daughter named Abigail, arrived in September. He's in a steady relationship, works construction by day and fixes motorcycles at night. Gajdys owes court costs and fines as well as restitution to the Evans family, debts at which he's slowly chipping away.
"I never understood how far the ripples went for a decision that I make," he said. "They run into a lot of people."
Fearing a relapse, medical professionals advised Gajdys to delay fulfilling his community service requirements.
Forcing someone to regularly recall personal trauma before completion of treatment "generally makes them worse," said Matthew Dooley, a staff psychologist at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Plains Township.
Before treatment, the memory controls you, dictating when you are ready to share it, Dooley said.
"And, after the treatment, you decide when you're going to talk about it, how you're going to feel about it, " he said. "It's not ever going to be a good memory. It'll never feel good to think about it or talk about it, but at least you're in control of it instead of it controlling you."
Evans' family isn't happy about the delay.
"We want that thousand hours," Jim Evans said. "If I spend the rest of my life, I want to make sure every hour of that is done the way it's supposed to be."
The family set aside its grief and anger to help Gajdys rebuild his life, Kimberly Evans said. They expect him to respect their sacrifice and honor his debt.
"He's accountable for that," she said. "I do not want him to have a get-out-of-jail-free card. I don't want that. I want him to have justice tempered by mercy."
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