incarcerated veterans discover a new path.
By Harris Fleming
Some people have a gift for drawing motivation from hardship, and they often have a great capacity for sharing that gift with others.
Rich Liebler ’67/M.A. ’19/Ed.S. ’20 is the unassuming sort, and he might not strike you as one of those people. Talk to someone whose life has been touched by this former member of the Board of Regents, however, and you’ll get the picture.
Esperanza Maldonado met Liebler in a life-skills class he was teaching at a Ford training center while she was residing in a halfway house, and she calls it a “life-changing” moment. “He is a rare find. There’s not that many people out there who would take their time, their energy and put it into people,” she says. “He put his time and his energy into me, and the only thing he was looking for in return was for me to become successful.”
And she did, becoming a top Nissan salesperson for Sansone Auto Group, where Liebler is a vice president.
In recent years, Liebler has focused on counseling incarcerated veterans, who account for approximately 8 percent of inmates in U.S. state prisons, according to the Preliminary Assessment of Veterans in the Criminal Justice System
Liebler’s penchant for helping others may be all the more inspiring considering the challenges he has faced.
Take his military experience as a Marine jet pilot in Vietnam. Having already been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism during a hazardous mission along the Ho Chi Minh trail, Liebler cracked his spine, shattered both wrists and sustained a traumatic brain injury in a rocket attack as he was doing a preflight inspection of his aircraft.
For weeks he was given intravenous Demerol to manage his pain, but on the day he was released he knew he had become dependent. “I started shaking and getting these horrendous headaches, all kinds of weird things happening to my body,” he recalls. A course of methadone helped, but what really motivated him to get clean was the desire to fly again.
The experience provided empathy and credibility later in life when it came to counseling addicts. “That’s one of the things I teach when dealing with substance abuse: you have to have a goal, a vision,” he explains.
And then in 1989 he experienced the death of his 17-year-old son in a car accident. Liebler started an auto technician training program for at-risk youth and adults in his son’s honor. The boy’s photo still hangs there. “It focuses me — this is one of the reasons I do this,” he notes. “Working to help at-risk populations change their lives became my mission in life.”
Liebler’s Seton Hall background has figured prominently at every turn. His introduction to the military came as an ROTC student and member of the Pershing Rifles while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in sociology. And when he wanted to follow his passion for counseling, it made sense to return to the University, calling the professional counseling program “one of the best in the country.” He earned master’s degrees in professional counseling and school counseling.
Seton Hall is also playing a role in helping veterans and others re-enter society after prison.
Through the support of Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., the Seton Hall University School of Law secured a $632,000 grant to develop a community-based re-entry and support services program. According to Lori Outzs Borgen, associate clinical professor and director of the Center for Social Justice where the program is based, services like those provided by Liebler are essential in helping the incarcerated transition back into the free world — and helping them stay there.
“If people get good supportive services, it really can have a big impact on recidivism,” she explains. “To have somebody like Rich to help you with that counseling is just crucial.”
Harris Fleming is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.