Recovery, Relapse, and Recovery: A Vietnam Veteran’s Story
September is National Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month. Throughout the month, the HRC is featuring profiles of recovery. Jim* is a Vietnam War veteran who served for six years in the Marine Corps. He has struggled for over thirty years with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), hallucinations, and alcohol and drug use. Alternating periods of addiction and recovery have led him from war to prison, from material success to homelessness, and from desperation to recovery. This is his story of recovery, relapse, and recovery.
September is National Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month. Visit SAMHSA’s Recovery Month website to learn more about activities to highlight the societal benefits of substance abuse treatment, the contributions of treatment providers, and to promote the message that recovery from substance abuse in all its forms is possible.
“Once you’ve been in the Marine Corps, you can’t un-marine yourself,” explains Jim.* His parents say they gave their son to the Marine Corps, but a different man returned. When Jim returned from serving in Vietnam, he encountered a society divided over the war. “I was already on the edge when I joined the military. Back then, if you pushed me, I pushed you back harder.”
Jim joined the military at the age of 17 in 1973. He was sent to language school in Japan, where he learned to speak Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Khmer, Vietnamese and Lao. “My job was to interrogate, interpret, and ‘remove’ Vietnamese generals who were hiding in Laos and Cambodia.”
He was successful in the military and received two promotions. Then he discovered alcohol. After drinking, he would black out and wake up with no memory of what had happened. “I thought alcohol did that to everyone.” Jim still managed to serve for six years in Vietnam with continued success. Then, he went on leave in Japan and caused an alcohol-related incident that ended his tour of duty. He was sent to a hospital in North Carolina and ordered to attend Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings.
“When I came back I had an alcohol problem, but I also had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I never sought help. I was given medications, but I didn’t follow the instructions from Veterans Affairs (VA). I went back to drinking because it seemed to work for a while.”
His drinking led to more difficulties, but he never viewed alcohol or drugs as the cause of his problems. He signed up to return to school on the G.I. bill, but partying interfered with his class attendance. “I thought America owed me after what I had gone through.” Jim bounced between marriages, the birth of a child, periods of relative stability and controlled drinking, a career as a draftsman and contractor, and several prison sentences. During a five-year prison sentence, he experienced a prison riot. “It was gruesome and it reminded me of combat in Vietnam.”
He began to notice the connections between alcohol and drugs and his problems. Over the years, he was ordered to join AA numerous times, but he never maintained sobriety. “I was full of contempt for AA, Narcotics Anonymous (NA), church, religion, the VA, social workers, doctors. I thought it was all a scam. I would build my life up around me and then destroy it again.”
Eventually, at age 40, he found his way back to the VA and back to AA. In 1996, he started telling his truth and found other people who were angry like him. “The biggest eye opener was learning I was not alone and that I didn’t have to live that way. I realized I had been wrong about everyone who had tried to help me. It was an epiphany.”
Jim decided he had to get sober. “I asked another Vietnam veteran for help in AA because his stories reminded me of my life and my struggles. He seemed to be in a good place.” Jim shares that asking another man for help and to be his sponsor was the hardest thing he has ever done.
Eight years of sobriety followed along with financial success. Jim ran his own construction business, owned a home, and lived in recovery. “In my eighth year of sobriety a lot of bad things happened to me.” In the space of one month, he suffered significant financial losses and was sued. He was in a car accident and broke his neck and his spine, bending the steel rods in his spine from a war injury.
“My first mistake was not informing my doctors that I was an alcoholic. They sent me home with morphine.” Jim started taking drugs to blunt his pain and became increasingly angry at the world. “One day I went to an AA meeting and the club manager suggested that I change my sobriety date. I left filled with resentment and drove to Walgreens and bought two six packs, a bottle of rum, a bottle of vodka, and a bottle of whiskey. Within an hour, I was in jail.”
After getting out of jail, Jim says that his addictions took him to the edge of the grave. Little by little, he lost all of his possessions, houses, cars, and finally his business. “There is nothing worse than a head full of AA when you are drinking. It doesn’t work.” Eventually he was homeless, suicidal, and homicidal. “When I was homeless I talked to myself and I thought I was being quiet. But I didn’t. People called me ‘caveman’ and I started believing what people were saying about me.” After a car accident, Jim ended up in a psychiatric ward. He says that the accident kept him from killing himself and others.
When he was in the psychiatric ward, friends from AA reached out to help him. “The bottom line is that we cannot go through our lives alone.” He was given another chance when he returned to AA in June of 2008. “My life is a gift. This time my recovery has been a struggle. I have had to work twice as hard, but I don’t mind because it is a lot better than where I have been. I no longer take my recovery lightly. I attend meetings, I help others, and I try to practice the principles of AA in all of my affairs.”
Today, Jim has fifteen months of sobriety. He is receiving treatment for PTSD from the VA Hospital, and has returned to school to study to become an electrician. Jim plans for the future, but does not concentrate on it. “It is just one day at a time. I owe my life to the fellowship and to a higher power. I have been given another chance and my life is going in a new direction.”
*His name has been changed to protect his privacy.
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