January 2020 | Spiritual Awakenings

Reporting for Duty

He thought his long, distinguished service career was over. Turns out he had more giving back to do

By my mid 30s, I was happily married and had a successful Army career, along with the ability to compartmentalize my life. Though I didn’t know it, I also had alcoholism.

While I was not on my way to becoming a four-star general, my career was well-grounded: ROTC, airborne and ranger training, a four-year stint in a tank battalion where I commanded a company in Germany and a stateside tour as a public affairs officer in a mechanized infantry division. My reputation in Army public affairs was such that I was a “by-name-request” to serve as a special augmentee during the 1983 Grenada operation.

In the late 1980s, at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) on the international public affairs staff, I was fluent in French and could speak it on duty, thanks to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. At SHAPE, I was granted a top secret security clearance (the highest level) and I was able to compartmentalize classified information, some of which I can’t discuss even today.

I’m not sure when my drinking crossed the “invisible line” into alcoholism, but I do know that I developed a fondness for red wine in Belgium that lasted another decade until I hit bottom.

As I entered the second decade of my career, I served as second in command of a tank battalion 15 miles from the wall that separated East and West Germany during the Cold War. I was there when the wall came down and the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union crumbled.

Next, I was named to a “Training with Industry” assignment with a major advertising agency in Chicago, after which I ran the Army recruiting paid media and direct marketing program.

My success continued. I was named as a special recruiting battalion commander and chosen for the Army War College Correspondence program. But I was drinking every day after work, driving drunk and drinking more when I got home. Nevertheless, I deluded myself about my drinking. Why not? There were no consequences and I was getting “signals” that I might make full colonel.

When a new general took over and said that he would not abide by the promises of his predecessor, my world changed. Despite my success, I became bitter and resentful I was becoming more and more reckless in my off-duty conduct. I soon decided it was time to retire. 

Eventually several of my subordinates suspected misconduct and they demanded a formal investigation. An Army colonel found that my off-duty conduct was “not in keeping with the highest traditions of military service” and I was relieved of my duties as a battalion commander two days before the change of command ceremony.

This was, as the Big Book says,  “crushed by self-imposed crisis we could not postpone or evade.” To add insult to injury, my last Army evaluation report, written by a two-star general I had never even met, was mailed to me. Closing comments: “Lt. Col. W. should never be recalled to active duty, even in the event of a national emergency.”

However, I still wasn’t finished. I had been lucky enough to find a job with an advertising and public relations firm in Louisville. I continued to drink after work every day.

By this time, I had left the marital residence. My wife and I tried counseling, to no avail. I continued therapy. We did make an attempt to reconcile, buying a new house, for which we had contracted before the end of my career, but that failed. I lived there for only five months.

My wife had told me that “one of these days your luck is going to run out.” So I brought all of my drinking home. By now, she was attending weekly Al-Anon meetings and would leave the old “44 Questions” brochure around the house. When she wasn’t around, I’d sneak a look, take the test, but fudge on the “yes or no” questions to make sure I didn’t test out as an alcoholic.

I never hit my wife, but toward the end I would become filled with rage and, as the Big Book says, “smash treasured crockery.” One night she’d had enough and called 911. The police came to our home and spent half an hour with us. They walked us off the ledge, telling us both that we’d both go downtown to booking if they had to come back.

The next day, I left Louisville for a four-day business trip to Washington, D.C. When I returned to my office, two Jefferson County Sheriff’s Deputies came and told me that my wife had taken out an emergency protective order and that if I made any contact with her or went within 500 feet of my home, I’d go to jail for 30 days.

Two weeks later, at the family court hearing, I was subjected to a long list of my bad, alcoholic behavior that brought me to tears. The judge admonished me to leave the courtroom with no further contact with my wife and encouraged me to get help.

Two days later, my counselor, who I’d still been seeing, connected me with a local hospital for treatment. I checked in that night, but was not willing to stay for a month. I finally agreed to an intensive outpatient program (IOP). I did drink twice during those first 10 days, but I had my last drink in November of 1998.

During the IOP, I learned about the disease of alcoholism, the brain and nervous system and the basics of how to stay sober one day at a time. Most importantly, the treatment team introduced me to the Big Book and encouraged me to get a sponsor and go to AA meetings.

After about six weeks of bargaining with myself, I fully conceded to myself that I was an alcoholic and that I needed the rooms (and everything that goes with them) to stay sober.

After I left the IOP, I got a 

sponsor, did 513 meetings, attended “aftercare” at the hospital one night a week for six months, joined a men’s Step-study group and for eight months lived with another alcoholic who I had met in the IOP.

The original reason I quit drinking and sought help was to return to my wife. While the restraining order was still in effect, I did take the risk of letting her know that I was now sober. Eventually, we were able to reduce the tension, lift the order and resume counseling. 

As much as I wanted it to work, our marriage had become unfixable. While there were issues on both sides, I take full responsibility for the pain I caused her. I accepted the loss of dignity and professional prestige that had come to my life as a result of my drinking.

It was a tough pill to swallow, to be the son of a career Army officer who had seen his own career end in flames and his marriage end. But at least I was sober, meeting new people and establishing roots in my new hometown of Louisville.

Despite my recovery, my professional life never fully healed in those early sober years. I bounced from job to job. Depression set in and took hold for two years. I got help for that and got better. And I didn’t drink.

In 2004, at the age of 50, I remarried. I blended into a new family, with a teenage daughter! With new responsibilities, I learned more about myself, the meaning of family and much more.

As I grew in sobriety, I became less saddened by thoughts of the end of my Army career. Even though I was honorably discharged, with a retirement check (of which my ex-wife gets 40 percent), I was long embarrassed by what had happened and the black cloud under which I had left the Army. 

In 2006, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were raging and the Army’s personnel system was stretched. One night I read about the “Retiree Recall” program. I showed my wife the article and she encouraged me to go for it. Two months later, I shipped out to the mobilization station at Fort Benning, Georgia for two weeks before reporting to the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. 

The officer who was never to be recalled to active duty was back in the Army. For a year, I paid my dues, working 13-hour shifts (some might call this amends) in the Army Operations Center. When an active duty position opened in the front office, I went to my boss and told him I was uniquely qualified and I became a team chief. 

While at the Pentagon, I attended the Puzzle Palace AA group that met three times a week, along with a men’s meeting on Saturday morning.

Within three years, I would become deputy director of my department. I dealt with every major issue faced by the Army. What a journey for someone who had been relieved of his duties just a few years before!

In 2017, I retired from full-time work and returned to my beloved Louisville. Then, as I had done during every major “turning point” in my sobriety, I went to 90 meetings in 90 days, reestablished contact with my old sponsor there, and was asked to join the board of directors for a local Twelve Step clubhouse. Continuing in service, in 2018 I was invited to join the AA Committee for Cooperation with the Professional Community, where I work to carry the AA message to the armed forces and veterans communities.

I served our country for 34 years (24 in uniform) and now sobriety has given me the chance to put new meaning into service to our country, my community and to the alcoholic who still suffers. For that, I am eternally grateful.

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