© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Opioids In The Family


The White House announced yesterday that President Trump plans to donate his third-quarter salary to the Department of Health and Human Services to help fight the opioid epidemic in this country. For millions of Americans, this fight is not political but personal. James Winnefeld knows that in the most painful way.

Winnefeld spent his career in service to his country. He rose to the rank of admiral in the U.S. Navy and to the post of vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Obama administration. But while he helped steer the military and the nation as part of his work, at home, his family was struck by a foe he could not conquer - opioid addiction.

His son Jonathan died from a heroin overdose just days after he started college this fall. Winnefeld wrote about his son's battle with addiction for The Atlantic. I asked what his son was like before the drugs.

JAMES WINNEFELD: Jon was a great kid. He grew up, obviously, in a military family moving around a lot with his older brother as his best friend. He was kind, gentle. He was a good athlete - good baseball pitcher. But beneath all of that kindness, gentleness, athleticism was an insecure kid. He had anxiety and a little bit of depression that he tried to hide but gradually manifested itself. And that's what caused him to ultimately end up as an addict. He was prescribed Adderall from a misdiagnosis of attention deficit disorder, which is...

MARTIN: How old was he then?

WINNEFELD: He was probably in fifth or sixth grade.


WINNEFELD: And so he started sneaking a little bit of alcohol at night to bring himself down from that sort of high that Adderall gives you. And it went from there.

MARTIN: I mean, did you know he was sneaking alcohol? Did you know when it started to shift?

WINNEFELD: Yeah, we did. We did. And it was sort of - hey, Jon, you know, you got to quit doing this. We thought it might have been a choice - a bad choice, bad friends, that sort of thing - because we really didn't understand as parents, at that point, the real mechanisms of addiction and the downward spiral that's created in the brain. So we missed that.

And we did what an awful lot of parents do. We sort of chided him, urged him - this is the last time, right? But in the end, that didn't work out. And we ended up putting him into inpatient treatment when it got really bad.

MARTIN: You point out in the piece that you wrote for The Atlantic that even with your family's resources, that it was a huge challenge to get treatment for Jonathan. Can you describe some of the roadblocks that your family encountered?

WINNEFELD: We sort of encountered two principal ones. It's very hard to find places that really understand the important dynamics associated with dual diagnosis of some sort of mental illness, as Jonathan had - anxiety and depression - coupled with addiction. Those two have to be treated very carefully, in a nuanced way, together.

And then this treatment is incredibly expensive. If you really want to do it right, you have to do it for a long time. Thirty days isn't enough. And it's not cheap. So we dug deeply. We were fortunate in having the means to be able to do this. Most American families are not capable of doing this. And we - that's not lost on us. We would have paid more if we thought it would have done more for Jonathan. So it's expensive, and it's hard to find.

MARTIN: So you're doing treatment. You're putting all this money, resources, emotional attention. And you're thinking you're getting some results. And Jon told you that he was feeling good.

WINNEFELD: Right. We really gradually watched our son recover. The brain, in its unseen ways, has to go through this recovery process. And over the course of 15 or 16 months, we watched it. It's almost like a miracle, where he sort of turned back into being our son and gradually regained some of his social skills, some of his ambition. He went out and got his emergency medical technician qualification, which was a huge deal for him. It's something that he really relished doing because it was interesting to him and he knew he would be able to help other people. So watching that unfold as parents was...

MARTIN: And it means he thought there would be a future.

WINNEFELD: Oh, absolutely.

MARTIN: So he was planning for a future.

WINNEFELD: Jonathan wanted to live. He wanted to contribute. He was excited about this. He ultimately wanted to be a paramedic fireman. He knew that going to college would be a good leg up to being able to accomplish that. So as the end of his treatment approached, we all agreed that he would enter college. And three or four days later, we lost him.

MARTIN: People will hear this and think - well, then what are you supposed to do? You guys did everything right. You had the resources. You got him into treatment. You just kept going at it and going at it. And he's signaling that he's OK. And he's got a career plan. And he's in college. It leaves you feeling incredibly helpless.

WINNEFELD: Well, Rachel, that's one of the reasons why we're putting together the project that we put together that we call SAFE - Stop the Addiction Fatality Epidemic. And part of that project is going to be reaching out to families who want to understand this better so that maybe they'll have benefit of the information, the knowledge that we wish we had had all along the way.

MARTIN: Is there something else that you learned through...

WINNEFELD: Yeah. I think on the front end, as your child is starting to enter into this downward spiral - at the very, very beginning is, don't let hope conquer reality. You know, there were so many times when we would go to Jonathan and say - hey, look, this is just a phase, right? And you know this is not right. And you're just going to stop. Right? And the addict will tell you whatever you want to hear when, in fact, he was in the middle of this downward spiral. So don't let hope conquer reality. Face reality. And if you think your loved one is in that spiral, act early to get them into some kind of treatment.

MARTIN: On a personal level, I wonder if you could share a little bit about how you dealt with all this because you are someone who is used to getting results. You are someone who has faced some of the most complicated problems there are. I imagine it was excruciating to not be able to fix this for him.

WINNEFELD: Two things have helped me get through, frankly. One is tremendous outreach from friends. You know, the love and care we've gotten from a whole host of people out there has just made all the difference in the world. And for me - I hate to say it - being a naval aviator, we're taught to compartmentalize...

MARTIN: Right.

WINNEFELD: ...Put the bad things in a box while you do what you need to do, flying an airplane or whatever it is. And I'm - I feel fairly well-equipped to do that. I think it's been harder for the rest of my family, particularly my wonderful wife Mary. But we're getting through it.

And I think the thing that will help us the best - just remembering what Jonathan said in his incoming essay to University of Denver. And it's that he has a newfound purpose in life and he wants to help other people. And if we can carry that forward and help other families and help this nation conquer this terrible epidemic, then that will be a key part of what gets us forward.

MARTIN: Retired Admiral James Winnefeld - he is the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He's currently a regular contributor to CBS News. Thank you so much for talking with us.

WINNEFELD: My pleasure, Rachel. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF J MASCIS' "CAN I") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.