Admiral who lost son to opioid addiction is marshaling support to end the epidemic
By ALEX HORTON | The Washington Post | Published: December 1, 2017
Retired Navy Adm. James "Sandy" Winnefeld once had the ability to project military power anywhere on Earth. But when it came to finding help to pull his son Jonathan back from the depths of drug addiction, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was at a loss.
Writing in the Atlantic, Winnefeld described the magnetic force of opioid addiction that eventually claimed his 19-year-old son in September. His death was traced to fentanyl-infused heroin. Overdoses killed 64,000 Americans last year — more than 20 times those killed in the Sept. 11 attacks, Winnefeld noted.
But few of those deaths involved families as connected to powerful institutions as the Winnefeld family, underscoring how deeply rooted the problem of addiction has taken hold. A career military officer, Winnefeld sought addiction-care resources for his son through Tricare, the military's health-care system for active-duty troops and retirees.
But that proved difficult even for a four-star admiral with access to guidance from senior government leaders. Winnefeld and his wife, Mary, hit a roadblock: Tricare does not cover recovery programs for mental health issues paired with related drug addiction problems, known as dual diagnosis. Jonathan struggled with anxiety, they said.
"It was really hard to work through that system," Winnefeld told The Washington Post.
The Winnefelds and military health-care experts stressed that Tricare's limitations mirror the civilian health-care system, where care for drug addiction and mental health issues has not kept pace with the widening opioid epidemic.
"There are not enough facilities. There are not enough providers" in either systems, said Joyce Wessel Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association. But sometimes military families are uniquely challenged, she said, because of geographic constraints of military installations concentrated in the South and West that often put facilities out of reach for many.
The only solution was to pay out of pocket for Jonathan's eventual 15 months at addiction treatment centers, from April 2016 until this past July. The treatment cost the equivalent of four years of tuition at a private university, Winnefeld said.
Jonathan's treatment seemed to be a success, and he started at the University of Denver in the fall, the Winnefelds said. He was happy and excited to begin the next chapter in his life after standout seasons as a pitcher at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia. College out west was a chance to renew his spirit.
Three days after dropping him off at the university, Sandy and Mary got the call. Jonathan was dead of an apparent overdose.
It could have been a moment to spiral into despair, the family said. But Jonathan had proudly earned his EMT license to bring people back from the brink, especially those facing similar addictions. So Sandy and Mary started an advocacy group. Stop the Addiction Fatality Epidemic, or SAFE, seeks to eradicate opioid addiction through research, awareness campaigns and a push to expand treatment resources, among other areas of focus.
"One of the important things I discovered along the way is that I learned a great deal about addiction itself during Jon's recovery, but I only really learned about the epidemic after his death," Winnefeld wrote on the group's page.
The retired admiral seeks to leverage his influence and connections in military circles, and the judicious use of "the bully pulpit" as an analyst on CBS, to support his cause. Decades of naval service in his family has provided a road map to setting an objective and meeting it, full force.
"We want to be action-oriented. If we can use that to save a family, then it's worth the effort," he said.
In his freshman seminar essay, written just a month before he died, Jonathan wrote about his first ride-along on an ambulance as a freshly minted EMT. His crew responded to a call of a man overdosing on heroin in an McDonald's bathroom.
The experience changed Jonathan, serving as a mirror of his own struggles.
"Not much will affect me in such a strong way, but watching this all unfold as a former addict/alcoholic myself made me view life in a whole new light," he wrote. "This whole situation made me see just how precious and delicate life is."