- Written by Billy Dunne
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- Published in CAG Admin
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Addiction in the military. First of all NO ONE wants to discuss this because it requires everyone involved to look inward, and people just hate to do that. Myself included, but here we are. I honestly don't expect this article gain any traction because im talking about the least popular subject in the world.
Ive also been hesitant to write this because I know it will piss off some friends and family who would rather me hide it, but I am an honorably discharged (retired) recovering addict with full benefits and as you will read, im very lucky to be so. Im not writing this article in an effort to preach or sway people into showing me some kind of sympathy; I would like to start a discussion about addicition in the military, specificaly how addiction in the military is mishandled through good intentions mized with a whole lot of "CYA" aka Cover your ass.
Let's go over some general terms (my personal definitions) before we get into the meat of it all.
Perception. There is still a gross disconnect between addicts and non addicts and to be fair thats not exclusive to the military. If you were to look at a someone addicted to opiates there is an unspoken "understanding" that something in this soldiers life went wrong to set them on this path. However, when we look at alcohol the view tends to be skiewed towards moral or ethical issues, after all you can enjoy a beer without a problem so it must be this guys moral compass. The fact is, alcohol is just as addicting as opiates and can even KILL you if not detoxed properly. There is no difference between the two addicts, just the "drug" they use, both need recovery and both need sobriety. Sobriety and revovery are NOT the same thing but they do go hand in hand.
Sobriety. In simple terms it means no longer using the Drug of Choice (DoC). It doesnt mean no longer addicted, it simply means not using or abstinence. Military addiction revolves around sobriety and abstinence, not recovery. As long as the SM isnt using then in the eyes of the DoD everything else is the SMs problem, when It is recovery that an addict needs to maintain sobriety and live a normal life. Sobriety is the current metric used to define the success of an addiction issue within a particular command. It is absolutely possible to be free of chemicals and exibit all of the toxic thoughts and behavior assiciated with addiction. We call them "dry drunks."
Recovery. Recovery is the general term we use for the whole life changes required to maintain abstinence. Recovery is the individual work the addict must do in terms of working a programs steps, repairing burned bridges and more importantly LEARNING to live sober. Part of recovery is dealing with loss, and the loss that comes with your new sober life.
Will power. The belief that through sheer discipline addiction can be stalled or even cured based on the addicts drive and work ethic. Its also the most used excuse to attack someone morally and ethically for a chemical addiction that could be lethal if not managed correctly.
An addict can be sober on any given day, but an addict can only be in recovery when they have the will, tools and the time to live sober...
As leaders (or even as addicts), many of us have encountered this issue at least once in our careers only to find out our hands are completely tied when it comes to addressing this issue on an individual basis. Why is that? Well the answer is simple: We kick out everyone that has any experience on the subject, virtually no one understands what the addict is going through. Policies and regulations are written by folks who DONT suffer with addiction directly, its not good enough to know an addict... The ones who dont get kicked out are propted up as symbols of success in an effort to cover up the failure of our military addiction programs. The military definition of success revolves around continued military service. As an addict, our brains simply are not working correctly and our logic doesnt make sense, there are physiological reasons for this that would take too long to explain in an article. We (addicts) even KNOW it doesnt make sense but its the DoC talking, not our brains. This is why we have sponsors, we need someone who "gets" it when we explain our rationale, our sponsors help steer us back to the right path and provide clarity. Thats how we promote the dialog we need to get better, because our sponsors are addicts and we can trust they wont judge us.. There is nothing worse than having to explain my addict rational to a supervisor who simply is not equipped to understand these issues.
We know we are wrong, we know we are hurting ourselves and our family and we know we are ruining our careers. WE JUST CANT STOP.
Before we go any further it needs to be understood that our service members are people first, just people. The rules of addiction are no different for those in uniform than they are for civilians in suits. It doesnt do anyone any good to label someone an alcholic or addict if they cant see that for themselves, and to make matters worse the DoD feels like it owns the outcome of someones sobriety based on the service members continued service in their particular field. Let me explain, the success stories you here about addiciton in the military almost always revolve around the SMs salvaged career, rarely about their lives as a whole. What if the Service Memebers sobriety isnt compatible with Active Duty? In those cases the SM is generally viewed as a "problem" and magically attitudes shift back towards the asinine "Zero tolerance" policy of just crucifying them with UCMJ action. Why not transition?
Ultimately in order for someone to sober up the consequences of their use MUST outweigh the benefits of continued use. The DoD can have a role in those consequences for sure, but applying a moral or ethical stigma isnt the way to do it. As an addict I think: If you take away all future benefits of sobriety then why bother getting sober? You simply cant order someone to be sober, then crucify them because they cant. If they could we wouldnt be having this discussion. As leaders, our realtionship with addiction has been historicaly based on the soldiers overall performance but NOT giving them the tools they need to restore balance in their lives. Military programs revolve around abstinence and dont allow any wiggle room when it comes to giving the SM time they need to repair their lives. Its either stay dry or get discharged. Having said that, punishing them for lost gear and lost time is the RIGHT thing to do, thats a consequence.
I can tell you first hand that the military programs and the attitudes of my leadership were entirely based on my best interest being their best interest. When it became clear that my best interest was NOT in their best interest we had a problem. Service members are basically ordered to be sober for a year to avoid getting kicked out of the Military and then they are thrown into groups mimicking Alcoholics Anonymous but these groups include people who dont want to be there. The people who DONT want to be there make it impossible for those who do to get better. We simply are NOT there for the same reasons so why pour out my soul there? Why confess my sins and problems to a room full of E1s who just want out of the Army? Fuck that, these programs are a joke and in many cases are downright harmful.
There is an inherant beleif that somehow SMs are different than everyone else, thats just not true. ALL addicts think they are uniquely unique, and when the military adopts that frame of mind we tend to foster their (the addicts) beleif that they are somehow not responsible for their addiciton. We all have problems, but for some of us chemicals became our source of comfort, not people. We addicts are not unique, that needs to be understood from the top down. Civilian corporations are way better at addressing addiction because they understand its simply NOT their battle to fight. The addict either shows up for work and performs or gets fired. When a civilian employee asks for help they either get the time they need for rehabilitation and recovery or they dont. But I can assure they corporate leaderhsip doesnt see the success or failure of a particular indiviual as a refelction of their own success/failure and leadership but the DoD does. As a senior NCO i have fired folks for chemical dependency based on the fact that that particular service member couldnt get sober in the very rigid and linear window we offered him. We operated on the notion that we had the single best answer. The idea that he could get the siginificant time needed to get truly sober simply wasnt on the table so we kicked him out of the unit (not the Amry). Luckily for him, his next job was administraitive and that allowed him to get his life back on track, he has since gone on to be one the most highly regarded Green Berets ive heard about (operationaly speaking). In many cases it takes much longer than 90 days to get clean. We have to give them the time they need to relearn how to live sober and we dont even have that in the aresonal of options available.
When a civilian goes to a 90 day rehab stint they sometimes have a 6 month halfway house requirement for them to relearn sober living. They dont always use that oppritunity but it is an option available to most of them. Because of the rigid way in which military benefits are managed a sabatical isnt even on the table (unless of course your an officer pursuing an advanced degree) so they figure out a way to hide their addiction until they can draw retirement.
IF a SM has 16 years time in service, the spectre of recovery looks alot different to someone with only 2 or 3 years. The failure of a senior SM to successfuly negotiate their sobriety will have significantly heavier consequences them and for their familes. They could potentially be seperated, most likely dishonorbaly after all those years with virtually NOTHING to show for it. That creates a massive gap in their employement resumes and life long questions that will hender future job searches. Most folks with that much TiS have by then families and mouths to feed. The motivation to just shut up and hide is overwhelming. A service member in their early 20s or even at 19 years old looking at a discharge has a whole lifetime ahead of them to recover. However the policies in place for addiction treat both service members the same, despite the consequences. You want to know why addiction is hard to address in the military? Thats why. Looking at losing the last 17 or even 18 years of your soul is an unbearable thought for many senior leaders.
Recidivism and relapse. My challenge to congress is to formally launch a study to find out exactly what the relapse rate is for recently seperated SMs who have participated in a CoC recovery program. I dont have the numbers (i hoenstly dont think anyone does) but i would imagine the relapes rate is off the charts since the DoD is exclusively focused on them simply not using while they are on active duty. The disparity between active duty and veterans affairs addiction must be looked at in order to get any real data. I personally tried to stay sober simply to make it to 20 years, i have to beleive others are doing the same thing for the same reason. For me however i couldnt hold on and my life started to fall apart fast.
If you combine the broken, sober based approach to addiction with the family issues the military creates you have a recipe for disaster. Having been thru the toxic military divorce industry and the indifference my CoC played in THEIR role, combined with my own addiction, im not surprised the suicide rate is as high as it is. Personally i almost checked out and ate a pistol, no shit i was there... I was ready to end it. As horrible as this sounds, a dear friend of mine (Green Beret) took his own life that day and it woke me up. His tragedy was my saving grace and that is the ONLY reason im here to write this article. In my own sad way I am still very grateful for him being in my life right down to his bitter end. Yes, he was getting the same treatment by the DoD...
In order for this next part to make sense i have to explain this part first. I knew early on i wasnt in control of my drinking. Doing what all addicts do i tried to create the illusion to myself that i would and could fix it so i checked into the out patient recovery program the Army offers called ADAPSE (just google it, they suck). It was during the outpatient program i discovered all i had to to do was pass a piss test and hide my drinking for a year and i would be off the hook. That year would take me that much closer to retirement where i could drink to my hearts content with out my CoC giving me grief (addict thinking). Or so i thought. Mind you i was deploying on and off the whole time as a senior NCO in a leadership position.
Well, when i tried to notify my CoC a second time i needed help everything had changed. Their approach was VERY aggressive and their immediate disposition was to kick me out of the Army because of an arbutrary timeline standard for sobriety, lucky for me i was "protected" under a very obscure regulation. They had a war to fight, and didnt have time for people like me. I dont blame them, I really dont they dont know what they dont know. My eyes were opened to the reality of my life in the Army. It was clear that after all the combat, blood, sweat, tears, sacrifice and LOSS that none of that mattered to them because i am a "problem" now. I went from hero to zero in less than 30 minutes because i asked for help.
I was fortunate enough to get a 90 day civilian treatment program and even luckeir to have a cadre of civlian addiction counselors that worked with me. I say fortunate because of my rank and the prestige f my position, but im under no illusion a E1 would have gotten such help. In my world made what this system work is that they simply didnt care that i was a soldier, to them i was just a hopleess addict. They focused on me, not my service, certainly not my Beret. I would say that for a vast majorty of SMs who are seeking recovery that they genuinely want to finish out their time on active duty honorably. Thats not my story, I understood that for me and me alone, sobriety and active duty were not compatible and I made the decision to retire when the option presented itself. Its that understanding that gave me the perspective that i have now. That perspective is based on the well being and revocery of the person, not the soldier.
I still talk to active duty service members all the time, I dont counsel i just listen and tell them my story. im not invested in the outcome of their careers so if that helps im glad, if it doesnt i genuinely wish them well. I have learned that recovery and sobriety are really not the same thing and that the rigid approach to career development and the inflexibility of the military benefits removes perceived options from someone struggling with addiction on active duty. Im stating clearly, there are no good options for a suffering addict, the people who achive recovery are the lucky ones. If youre an addict think about yourself not your service, be selfish. If you can help your self then any service you could offer will be there when your ready, not the other way around.
Life after the military. Although ive managed to move on and rebuild my life its not without hiccups. I still work on my sobriety and i battle PTSD often. In many cases i dont feel welcome back into the community because of my addiciton, yes i still feel shame around some of the team guys. I know for a fact many others addicts feel the same way. Ive been sober for over 5 years now and i still know people who are mad at me because the perceived "grief" they feel i caused them back when they owned me. I will always be a "that guy" to them, i know in SOF people dont forget or forgive like that, ive learned to live with that. i go into Facebook chat rooms and still see people "mother fuckering" folks from a DUI someone got 15 years ago! As if that guys DUI ever actually effected them or the war. Its that langauge and mind set that we are all aware of POST service that hurts the guys on active duty. We tell them unequivicably that they are bums because at one point that had an addicition problem, its painful to watch. Up until now ive been mostly silent on my addiciton because of that reason. I recently reached out to the Green Beret foundation and have volunteered my time to folks who are currently dealing with addiction or the fall out from addicition and i hope this article resonates with the few that need to hear it.
Its just like they told you in the Q course, YOU make the Beret the Beret doesnt make you. That holds true after you get out, its was always you and still is. Folks are out there and still deeply care for you even if some people simply cant see thru your addiction.