Commentary: Navy treatment and AA saved my life -- and career

Memo to TRICARE: Keep care in-house and mandate meetings.

In 1986, I was a young naval officer dying from active alcoholism. Through my command’s drug and alcohol team and with the support of my executive officer (I still owe that man my life and career), I went to treatment at the Naval Alcohol Rehabilitation Center at Naval Air Station, Miramar, Calif.

During six weeks of treatment, group therapy and education, I was introduced to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. We were required to go to the on-site meeting Monday nights and at least three other meetings a week. But we could arrange to go to more meetings and I found my way into a group of guys who seemed to want to get and stay sober -- we went every night and twice on weekends.

I worked hard at treatment and knew I was an alcoholic, but the staff at NARC told me in no uncertain terms that my recovery began when I left treatment and returned to the ship. The staff psychologist (himself sober 12 years at that point) said my old friends, old haunts and old ways would lead me back to drinking -- I needed to find a different way through AA.

My after-care regimen required four meetings a week for six months. I’d heard the addage about going to "90 in 90" and managed to go to about 120 meetings in my first 90 days -- I wanted to stay sober that badly.

In 2005, sober 19 years, I deployed to Iraq and connected with an AA meeting in the Green Zone, the Sands of Recovery group at the U.S. Embassy. We had recovering members who were active-duty military, reservists, State Department staff and contractors.

General Order No. 1 would not have kept me from drinking and we had several newcomers just getting sober there in Baghdad, as well as folks with long-term sobriety. Hell, we even got chased out of our aluminum trailer meeting room by a rocket attack -- so we continued in the duck-and-cover shelter until they sounded the ALL CLEAR.

Some years later, after a second tour in Iraq, I had the opportunity to help some Vietnam combat vets start up a meeting at Walter Reed (the old one). It was on post at a time when the soldiers in the post-traumatic stress disorder treatment unit could get there (the only other meeting on post was scheduled during their mandatory workday).

The Vietnam vets already knew what we Iraq and Afghanistan vets (and military medicine) were finding out -- that lots of folks were dealing with untreated PTSD by self-medicating with alcohol and drugs.

At one of those Walter Reed meetings, we had a good showing of soldiers in treatment at the hospital, some with visible scars, but most with just the invisible kind.

One guy was obviously stewing and on edge. He waited until the end of the meeting to blurt out that all he wanted to do was go up on a roof with his M-16 and blast away.

I'd had those feelings. Two months after getting home from my second tour, I was seconds from pulling a guy out of his car by his ears for cutting me off. I looked this soldier in the eye and said, "if I was gonna do that, I'd use a .50 [caliber machine gun].” After the prayer, we stood together and shared our common feelings and the tools I had found to deal with them.

We know in AA that no one can gain the confidence of a practicing alcoholic like another alcoholic. We know what it feels like to come out of a blackout in a strange place and have to piece together where we are and what we have done.

Same goes for troops suffering from PTSD and other combat stress injuries. They don't want to hear from the commander or the sergeant major that it's OK to get help. They want to hear from their platoon mate or peer who's been there, done that and is willing to share his or her experience with survivor's guilt, night sweats, rages and so on.

Military culture is different. Outsourcing treatment for combat vets seems like a cop out and is likelier to produce lasting resentments than lasting recovery. Today, I seek out men and women who have shared that terror -- I know they get whatever I'm going through. And I get what they are going through. I think we owe each other that -- and the military should be doing all it can to help restore the vets who come home broken.

Capt. Dave has served 29 years in the military. He hasn’t had a drink in 26 years. For obvious reasons, he asked us to withhold his last name.