Mary and Admiral James Winnefeld on Grief and Giving Back

    As parents, Mary and Admiral James “Sandy” Winnefeld just wanted to protect their son, Jonathan. This was a job Sandy felt he should have been well equipped for as the United States’ number two ranking military officer. Yet, Jonathan’s struggles with anxiety led him to start drinking alcohol and misusing prescription medications as a teen. Sandy and Mary did everything they could to find appropriate help for their son’s substance use. Still, just three days after they dropped him off at college, Jonathan died of an accidental overdose in his dorm room.

    The Winnefelds share their story with host Elizabeth Vargas on Heart of the Matter, our podcast on addiction. Elizabeth reflects on her own experience growing up in a military family, and Mary and Sandy discuss the challenges they faced parenting a child struggling with mental health, learning to live with grief and dedicating themselves to “saving a life every day” through their work with SAFE Project — the nonprofit they founded following their son’s death.

    Listen now

    If you’re unable to listen, check out the transcript of the Winnefelds’ conversation with Elizabeth below.

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    Episode transcript

    Speaker 1

    Hi, there. This is Jack Sykstus, producer of Heart of the Matter. Before we get started, we just want to let you know that this episode is about the story of parents who lost their child to an opioid overdose. This topic is incredibly important and can be difficult to listen to. So we ask that you use listener discretion before you get started.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Hello, everybody. Welcome to Heart of the Matter. I am your host Elizabeth Vargas. Today, we’re going to talk to two people I met early on several years ago in my sort of work in the recovery field. This couple really, really inspired me. James Winnefeld, and his wife, Mary Winnefeld, Sandy and Mary, as they’re called, lost their son to a heroin overdose. It happened on literally the first week of his freshman year of college after they dropped them off healthy, fine, thinking that he was going to be just great and starting the most amazing experience of his life. They experienced the kind of tragedy and heartbreak that many find incomprehensible. I don’t know. As a parent myself, I’m not sure how I could survive something like this.

    Sandy and Mary have taken their heartbreak and turned it into action. Sandy used to be Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States. He was the number two ranking military officer in the country. Together, they co-founded SAFE Project, which is a non-profit committed to overcoming the epidemic of addiction in the United States, and they have really spoken out to other parents in an effort to save other kids’ lives. We know that nearly half of all teenagers who suffer from addiction of some sort also suffer from either anxiety or depression, and the key to saving these kids is to getting them treatment early on. That’s what Sandy and Mary have dedicated themselves to. They are an amazing family and I hope you’re going to enjoy hearing from them and are as moved by them and their story as I was.

    Admiral, Mary, thank you so much for being with us today.

    Admiral Winnefeld

    Hello, Elizabeth. It’s really nice to be with you. [crosstalk 00:02:34]

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Thank you. It’s been… Gosh, it’s been three years since you got, Admiral, what you called the worst, most shocking call of your life. I can’t imagine that it’s any easier three years after losing your son to opioids.

    Admiral Winnefeld

    No, it’s never any easier. You just learn how to deal with it a little bit better as every day goes by. So if that’s understandable, I think. We still wake up in the morning wanting to save a life and that hasn’t died one bit.

    Mary Winnefeld

    Yeah. And I would say that time doesn’t heal the pain. What time gives you, it teaches you how to live with the pain. But the pain is still there. It still is raw. Someone is missing from our family.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    An important part of your family is no longer with you. Your son had gone to his freshman year in college and you had dropped them off full of great hope. He had battled an addiction to opioids and had gotten treatment, and you thought he was doing okay.

    Mary Winnefeld

    Yeah. He had gone through 15 months of residential treatment. He was out. He was ready to jump into school. He had signed up for the EMT club at his college. He was applying to be an EMT for major sporting events in the city of Denver. He was taking a night class on EKG training, and he really wanted to jump back into life again. But what we didn’t understand at that point in time was just how powerful the opioid connection is with the brain and that he was still very vulnerable and needed that support and that structure. Unfortunately, that was not there for him.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Tell me about Jonathan as a child. Nearly half of all teenagers who suffer from addiction of some sort have underlying mental health challenges. I actually, personally, was one of those kids. I had lifelong anxiety and that led me to alcohol addiction in adulthood. But I think that number is higher. I think many, many more people suffer from anxiety or depression or something.

    Admiral Winnefeld

    Jon was the younger brother in a military family, adored his older brother. We moved around an awful lot. It was difficult for Jon, much more difficult than it was for his brother and I think over the course of time, he developed anxiety and depression that eventually turned into substance dependence.

    Mary Winnefeld

    Yeah. Over the years, teachers always said he has attention deficit. We had him tested for that and he never showed any signs of having attention deficit. What we didn’t realize all along is that he was suffering from anxiety, from acute anxiety, which can often be misunderstood, misdiagnosed as a form of ADD. We, for many years, refuse to put them on any medications, et cetera. Finally, when he hit high school and he was really having a rough time, we did put him on Adderall, which for anyone who has anxiety, that’s the worst medication in the world that you can be put on.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    It just amps you up.

    Mary Winnefeld

    Yes, and that’s when things really started to tumble out of control.

    Admiral Winnefeld

    He basically needed alcohol initially to come down from the Adderall at night because it really amped him up. He was already anxious. Then that migrated into other substances.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Did he talk to you about his anxiety? Was he able to verbalize that?

    Mary Winnefeld

    He would talk to me about it. He would say, “Mom, I don’t feel right. I don’t feel like everyone else at school. I don’t feel like I’m getting the same joy out of life. I don’t feel…” He would spend a lot of time in his room. He was a prodigious reader, loved to write. So at first, I thought, well, it’s depression. But then now that I’ve learned more about anxiety and acute anxiety leads into depression and it was just the perfect storm.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Do you know at what point he did start turning to substances to alleviate that anxiety?

    Mary Winnefeld

    It was probably his sophomore year, the summer between sophomore and junior year. We really, he was not the type of young man that was going out to parties and doing the binge drinking type of thing. During his junior year in high school, he was a highly functioning addict and that he would go to school in the morning. Apparently, he was doing marijuana before school, which would just mellow him out. He’d go through school. He was on the varsity baseball team. He was a pitcher. So by the time he came home at night, we had no idea.

    Mary Winnefeld

    He was getting through and his grades… He got early acceptance into college. His grades, they weren’t all As, but they were acceptable. I even found out that he took his SATs high, but for him, it was just a way of feeling normal and being able to relax and to fit in. So eventually, that does catch up to you and he really spiraled between his junior and senior year. Then his senior year in high school is when we ended up having to pull him out early. Thankfully, he had completed all of his requirements for graduation and the school graduated in early, but then he went into treatment. So he was not able to graduate with the rest of his friends.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    What was the escalation on substances that he was using to help relieve the anxiety? You said he started with alcohol, marijuana.

    Admiral Winnefeld

    He started with alcohol and then he shifted to marijuana. We later found out that he had shifted to Xanax. What we didn’t know-

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Where was he getting that?

    Mary Winnefeld

    School.

    Admiral Winnefeld

    In the high school bathroom.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Wow.

    Admiral Winnefeld

    No problem. Piece of cake. Then what we didn’t realize is that he had experimented with opioids. Any of the several times that he had a really bad incident and we actually took him into the hospital and he was tested, they never once found any opioid related drugs in his system. It was always marijuana and alcohol. So when we put him into treatment, we thought we were having him for substance dependence on alcohol mostly, and marijuana and possibly Xanax. So we not only didn’t know about the tremendous vulnerability of somebody coming out of treatment who has been on opioids, we just had no idea that he had even been doing opioids. So we’re sort of a double vulnerability there. It goes back to if we only knew then what we know now, we would have been able to save our son.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    How did you not know that he was doing opioids? Did he figure that out while he was in treatment.

    Admiral Winnefeld

    Well, the old HIPAA rules, he turned 18 as he entered treatment. So we were only allowed to know what he was willing to tell us and he didn’t tell us about the opioids. He hinted that he had been doing some bad stuff, but there’s also a tendency as a parent to want to believe the best in your son or daughter. I just don’t think we processed that, frankly. Even to the point that the weekend before we dropped him off at college, we took him out to Colorado and did a very short vacation, and we noticed that he was very edgy. He was sweating a lot. There seemed to be a lot of anxiety.

    Admiral Winnefeld

    When we thought he was just worried about going to college to the point that the day we dropped him off at college, you wouldn’t believe how good looking this kid… He was sharp as a tack, dressed to the nines very, actually confident and relaxed. So fooled us even more. At that time, he was in withdrawal because as Mary mentioned, he had taken this EKG course in Denver to prepare himself for college. Well, walking home from that course at night to where he was staying is where he passed by Denver’s open air heroin market, which is where he relapsed. We didn’t know it, but in fact, he was in withdrawal the last couple of days we were with him.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Then it was just three days later, three days he was on that campus?

    Mary Winnefeld

    Yeah.

    Admiral Winnefeld

    Yeah, three days.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Who called you?

    Admiral Winnefeld

    I was called by a campus administrator. I was up at Harvard giving a talk and my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number, but I stepped outside and that’s where I got the awful news. So obviously, I dropped everything I was doing and came back home and we flew out to Denver that night, but it’s just unbelievable. We always knew there was a possibility that Jonathan would relapse into marijuana or alcohol, but that didn’t seem to us like a fatal risk. If we had known about opioids and if we had known about how the brain reacts when it is in recovery from opioids, we would have done a lot of things differently.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    We’ll get to that in a second. Mary, was Sandy, your husband, Admiral Winnefeld, was he the one who told you or did you get a call as well?

    Mary Winnefeld

    No, he was the one who called and told me, and just took my breath away as it would any parent. Especially a mom, you always want to try to fix things. So when you finally feel like you can take a breath and maybe this is a new start and then to get hit with this was just absolutely devastating, and devastating to know that he was back in his dorm room and that his roommate thought he was just snoring and didn’t realize at the time that his system, his body, his lungs were shutting down. So just all the way around a pretty horrible story.

    Admiral Winnefeld

    Yeah.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Yeah. My heart breaks for both of you have, truly. I have a 17 year old son who’s about to go off to school and I can’t even fathom getting a call like that.

    Mary Winnefeld

    No, and I know we’ll talk about more, but I think that is one of the reasons why we are so adamant about sharing our story is because if his roommate would have known this was happening, Jonathan had Narcan in his room, but his roommate didn’t know what he was going through because his roommate didn’t know about Narcan. Jon kept all of this inside.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    So you found out shortly thereafter that he had gotten heroin and that it was laced with fentanyl.

    Admiral Winnefeld

    That’s right.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    … a drug we’re seeing now appearing in everything from heroin to marijuana. It’s everywhere.

    Mary Winnefeld

    It’s everywhere. It’s pervasive.

    Admiral Winnefeld

    He was one of 72,000 people who died that year from some sort of an overdose. I think it was around 42,000 that died from opioid overdoses. There’s nothing like having somebody you love deeply as one of those statistics.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    I’d like to go back to when you were trying to get help for Jonathan in high school when you sent him away for treatment. Admiral, you are one of the most powerful men in the military and yet, it was difficult to find a place that could treat Jonathan, and the military didn’t cover the cost of that.

    Admiral Winnefeld

    No, they didn’t. They didn’t at the time and I’m not sure they still do today, really understand the complexities of substance dependence and complicating that was the fact that Jon was within a couple of weeks of his 18th birthday when that happened. So it made it only even harder to find a place that would take him. So we were presented with a very short list by the military’s healthcare system of places we could send him, almost none of which were suitable for him. After Mary, a week of desperately searching on the internet and any other way she could trying to find a place, we were very lucky that a friend of a friend turned us on to a very good treatment facility in Pennsylvania and that’s where Jonathan ended up after a week in the psych ward in Richmond, Virginia because there were not enough beds in Northern Virginia for him to go into some sort of temporary holding where he could detox.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    That must have been an incredibly helpless feeling to go from being in a position of power where you can make things happen literally all over the world involving hundreds of thousands of military personnel to just focused on your one son, trying to get him help and in that short period of time, because as we all know, it’s important to get them right away into treatment once they’re safely detox from whatever substance they’re on.

    Mary Winnefeld

    Well, and for us, I think, and again, coming back to the mom thing, you want to be able to fix everything and how could this happen? So yeah, insurance did not cover it. They didn’t cover any of the counseling sessions we had beforehand. Tricare, nothing. They gave us referrals to places as Sandy said that would not accept our son because he was about to turn 18 or it was for other types of illnesses. So we really were stuck at the time.

    Admiral Winnefeld

    The other thing that they didn’t really understand, and not many still do is the inextricable link between mental health and substance dependence. There are people who become substance dependent who do not have strictly a mental health issue, but that is more often than not the case, that there is some linkage there. So co-morbidity or whatever where you have a treatment facility that not only handles the substance dependence, but also handles the mental health issue was, at least at the time, very difficult for us to find.

    Mary Winnefeld

    And I think it still is. For Jonathan, the pivotal point for us and how we got there is one night, he had alcohol, too much to drink and he wanted to take his life. Thankfully, and I say, thankfully, he ended up in a car accident and hitting the telephone pole. Nobody was injured. He was only slightly injured, but that was when we knew that we could no longer keep him safe at home. I could no longer heal him, protect him, and we needed to get him someplace and someplace quickly. So that was the last time he was-

    Elizabeth Vargas

    This probably leads to, I know this is what your organization is dedicated to helping families through because when you talk about that week, when you’re madly, frantically on the phone calling everybody and getting nos everywhere, trying to find a bed, trying to find a place, trying to find if insurance covers it, it is incredibly stressful and this is a family in enormous distress, under stress, trying to make an important decision and so many times, we pick up a rehab and send our loved one or ourselves to it and it turns out not to be appropriate. It turns out not to be even reputable.

    Mary Winnefeld

    Right.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Talk about how difficult it is today in this country, even with an epidemic that is killing so many people. The leading cause of death under the age of 50 is drug addiction.

    Mary Winnefeld

    I think especially now with COVID, it’s even harder. We were just talking to someone who runs a reputable recovery place and they’ve had to cut their numbers back because at any given time, their staff has down in numbers because they are also fighting COVID. It takes a while to get your COVID test and get it cleared before you can get into treatment. So a lot of the places too financially have been hit hard because their numbers are down. So between the places that aren’t reputable and the body brokers that want to put you in those unreputable places and now with COVID, it’s extremely hard to find. For someone who’s in crisis, it’s nothing short of being in hell to be honest.

    Admiral Winnefeld

    So one of the things that we did early on, one of our initiatives was to try to create a web application that would take Mary’s seven days of searching for a one or two places to call and compress that down to a couple of hours, if not less than that. So that you can filter out all the nonsense and the things that really aren’t appropriate for you. Now, here are the three places that I really ought to call who have a decent shot at taking my son. So we wrote a web application to do that. It was a good application, but we wanted it to be better, which is why we were so happy to collaborate with Partnership to End Addiction to sort of do version two of that. It’s out there live right now and can be found on our website, which is safeproject.us.

    Admiral Winnefeld

    It literally is almost like Turbo Tax where you’re going in and it sort of interviews you about all of your particular characteristics, and it will yield, based on a very sophisticated database from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, where are you ought to look first.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Right.

    Admiral Winnefeld

    We don’t get any profit out of it. We’re not steering people in any particular direction. We just want to do the very best we can to prevent people from going through what Mary went through in frantically searching for a place for our son.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Mary, you just mentioned body brokers. Explain what these people are.

    Mary Winnefeld

    I guess the best way to describe it would be you look online, you find it says, “recovery or treatment help,” and you call this number and it’s recovery centers that are paying that person on the phone to direct you or your loved one to that facility, whether it’s the right place or not, whether it’s reputable or not. They will do extreme things too, including coming and getting you, flying you across the country, and then they will use your insurance. They will file claims that aren’t legal or right, or for procedures that weren’t done or medications or whatever. So it’s become a real moneymaking operation, unfortunately.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    It is. People are making a lot of money while others are desperate for help and still not getting it.

    Mary Winnefeld

    Yes.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    I’m curious, why do you think it is in the military that… I’m an army brat. My dad was in the army for 30 years. I grew up on army bases. Certainly, when I was a kid, there wasn’t counseling. It wasn’t a culture of therapy. I think we’ve gotten better at that, but why do you think the military and armed forces are still lacking when it comes to understanding mental health and addiction, especially when we have well-documented decades of this scourge in the military ranks?

    Admiral Winnefeld

    Well, I think that the military itself for the uniform forces is actually getting better at this. We recognize that mental health is an increasing problem for a variety of reasons, whether it’s social media or what have you. Are soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines, we’re seeing higher incidences of mental health issues and they’re reacting to that. I think the challenge is with the family piece. Frankly, the military healthcare system is not well configured for family mental health issues, which is why we would tend to believe, and Mary is smarter on this than I am, that it really ought to be outsourced to professionals who understand family mental health.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Mary, why aren’t we better at that? My gosh, when my dad went to Vietnam when I was six for a year, it was the most traumatic event of my life. These families are dramatically impacted. It’s not just the men and women in uniform who are serving and sacrificing for our country. Their family members are.

    Mary Winnefeld

    Yeah, exactly. Families do serve. I think it’s not an easy answer. The military and the military healthcare system, is based on military readiness and making sure our troops are ready. It’s not that families are an afterthought, but the first priority goes to our troops and you’ve got people rotating in and out of those positions. Whereas somebody who’s in the private sector, all they do is families. They aren’t moving. That counselor, that psychiatrist, he’s there, he understands us. So it’s a little bit different, priorities shift. In general, across the country right now, there is a huge shortage of providers, of therapists, of psychiatrists, psychologists. So it’s not only the military and the VA that’s suffering a shortage of people in this area, but it’s our country writ large that has a real shortage in support.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    It’s certainly been called a public health now for years. And yet, Mary, you still see the stigma surrounding this disease, the shame surrounding this disease. There are families who don’t reach out to somebody else for help because they’re ashamed that their loved one or they are suffering.

    Mary Winnefeld

    Yes, and that is probably the number one enemy.

    Admiral Winnefeld

    We call it public enemy number one.

    Mary Winnefeld

    Yes, public enemy number one. We’ve even started something called, No Shame, and that’s fighting the stigma. We have a No Shame campaign because as you mentioned, 20 million Americans over the age of 12 suffer with some sort of substance use disorder and we want to normalize this, make it part of the conversation. So we have a No Shame in My Game and there should be no shame in getting help for mental health or substance use. We’d love it if people would come to the SAFE Project website and take the No Shame in My Game pledge and we’d love it, Elizabeth, if you’d be also, [inaudible 00:24:56] … pledge. [crosstalk 00:24:58]

    Elizabeth Vargas

    … happy to.

    Mary Winnefeld

    There’s no stigma as well.

    Admiral Winnefeld

    This is one of the reasons, Elizabeth, why we did actually start SAFE Project. We could have crawled up into a little ball of anger, grief, and shame, but we decided that if people with our network, with the positions that we had, both mine in the military and Mary’s as a wonderful partner of mine in the military, if we would stand up and speak about this, that maybe other people would realize that, “Hey, maybe there is something to the fact that this is a mental health issue, that it’s a disease, not a moral failing.” We’ve had some success with that, I believe.

    Admiral Winnefeld

    We’ve had people come up to us and say, “Gosh, my brother, my son, my daughter, and we’ve never said anything about it to anybody, but you’ve inspired us to be a little more open about this,” because that’s one of the linchpins to solving this crisis is… Think back to the AIDS epidemic. That was viewed as a moral failing and not a disease for the longest time. Now, it’s in the mainstream of our society, it’s understood, and there are drugs available to treat it. You see ads on TV for it. Well, we need to get this disease beyond where it is as far as stigma goes.

    Mary Winnefeld

    I think we’re seeing probably the most progress with the younger generation and that’s why we have such a strong emphasis, our nonprofit has such a strong emphasis on campuses and not only helping people who are in recovery, making them stronger, but also normalizing the conversation on college campuses about this and speaking up and getting help and not being ashamed. Also, helping when you see somebody going down a path that could be fatal for them is actually… It’s better to step on their toes than to step on their grave. So really trying to normalize the whole substance use and mental health.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    This comes at a time during this pandemic when the CDC estimates that 80 million Americans are suffering mental health effects from this pandemic. Many, many, many of them self-medicating. We’ve got the numbers that show alcohol abuse and drug abuse. These numbers are rapidly escalating as we go through this time of enormous distress.

    Admiral Winnefeld

    When this pandemic is finally conquered, the epidemic of substance dependence is still going to be with us. It’s, in fact, been made worse, as you point out, by the pandemic. So we don’t want to get lost in the chaffs or whatever. We’ve got to continue our focus on this. Even after the pandemic is sort of cleared out of our system, we still have to focus night and day on resolving this epidemic.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Mary, I was struck by something you said, which I think is really valuable for other parents who might be struggling with children who are in the cycle of substance abuse. You said, “Don’t let hope be a strategy.”

    Mary Winnefeld

    Yeah. It’s only normal for a parent to hope for that this is going to go away, to hope that this was a one-time event, to hope that once we get past this hurdle or once we get past this exam, or once they get accepted into college or whatever it is that everything will go back to normal. Because this is a disease of the brain, it takes more than what we moms and dads and families can do. I think that’s probably one of the hardest things as well. Again, as a parent, you want to protect, you want to heal, you want to make everything right in their world, and this is something that we don’t know enough yet about the brain. It really takes a village to really get somebody through that. Then it takes the support afterwards, which is where we lost our son was after treatment, the support that he needed and we didn’t realize.

    Admiral Winnefeld

    Elizabeth, this sounds tough to say, but chances are if you think it’s bad, it’s probably worse than you think. We went through times when we had Jonathan in counseling, when we would look at each other and say, “We really just need to get him away from this environment and into something completely separate,” and we should’ve done it sooner than we did. I don’t know if it would’ve made a difference in the long run, but I think seizing control of this problem and facing reality, and again, as Mary said, not letting hope we be a strategy is terribly critical for parents. It’s a very hard thing to do because you believe in your kids, you think they’re going to be great and sometimes they’re struggling more than you think.

    Mary Winnefeld

    I think probably also the hardest thing is that on their end, they’re ashamed.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Right.

    Mary Winnefeld

    I know that our son was, and I know this is not where he wanted to be. As I tell people, no one ever grows up saying, “I want to be dead at age 19.” Nobody, nobody grows up and says, “I want to be homeless.” Nobody grows up and says, “I want to be an addict or have a substance use disorder.” Nobody in their right mind does that. So we need to start thinking of it there’s something that has happened that’s out of their control, and we need to find ways to support them. We need to have more research and- [crosstalk 00:30:44]

    Admiral Winnefeld

    I’ll give a little shout out to Jon for your audience. When Jon was getting ready to go to college, the school he was going to had the requirement for an essay for every incoming freshmen. The question they asked that year in 2017 was, who has had the most influence on your life? And of course, Mary and I would think, “Well, of course, it was his parents,” but in fact, he wrote this powerful well-written essay that refers back to a time when he was on an ambulance ride during his EMT qualification and he found himself in a bathroom at a McDonald’s in New Haven, Connecticut giving CPR to a man undergoing a heroin overdose.

    Admiral Winnefeld

    He writes about how he felt for this guy and what would his family feel like if he didn’t make it through the night? He closes this amazing essay with, “… and this man has inspired me to dedicate my life to helping those who cannot help themselves.” And of course, it wasn’t two weeks later that we lost Jon, but those words in his essay really resonate in our minds and that’s really why we started SAFE Project because we wanted to continue what he saw as his mission. He may have lost the battle, but he’s going to help us win the war.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    It makes you wonder what he could have done with his life had he been able to.

    Admiral Winnefeld

    Yeah, he was a remarkable young man who unfortunately was suffering.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Mary, that’s obviously hard for you.

    Admiral Winnefeld

    It is.

    Mary Winnefeld

    Very. Sorry.

    Admiral Winnefeld

    But we get up every morning and we have a wonderful staff working at SAFE Project, and we’re very proud of them for what they do every day. They are inspired by Jonathan. They know what their mission is and we’ve got a lot of great programs going on. Candidly, if this weren’t such a personal family tragedy, it would almost be fun because it’s such a complex problem and complex problems are fun to solve, but this is deadly serious.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    This is deadly serious and nobody knows it more tragically, I think, than obviously families like yours. I’m curious, both of you have been incredibly generous about sharing what this has been like for you. What has this all been like for Jon’s big brother? We’ve never actually talked about that.

    Admiral Winnefeld

    Jon’s brother who, by the way, as we literally speak right now, is on his way home from Baghdad, Iraq where he was deployed- [crosstalk 00:33:22]

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Wow.

    Admiral Winnefeld

    … and he gets back in a day or so. It’s a long trip. He freely admits that while Jon was, in his later years, he was stigmatized by Jonathan. He’d said, “Hey, he’s just a drug addict. He’s not living up to our family values. He’s doing the wrong things,” and that sort of stuff. It was only after we lost Jon that L.J. really sort of dug into this and realized that Jonathan was actually doing something much more difficult than L.J. at the Naval Academy was, overcoming this terrible disease and fighting, fighting every day to win it. L.J. felt strongly enough that he wrote an op-ed in USA Today about stigma. It was a wonderful piece of work about how he had been stigmatized by what his little brother was going through and how much he really appreciates now what he was fighting for.

    Mary Winnefeld

    On that note, I think L.J. just personally now, and as serving his country in uniform has given him new insight. I know there’ve been a couple of occasions where he is probably actually saved a life of a fellow buddy in uniform-

    Admiral Winnefeld

    Who was struggling.

    Mary Winnefeld

    Yeah, who was struggling.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Because he recognized the signs having watched his brother?

    Mary Winnefeld

    Yeah. He recognized the signs. After his article in USA Today came out, he actually had other members of the military, even at the Naval Academy come up to him and say, “Hey, I’ve been struggling. I’m in recovery, but thank you to your family. I never would have talked about this to anybody here before.” He knows now guys that work for him, how to talk them through things, if they have things going on in their families, what to look for after they return from a deployment, some warning signals. So I’m very proud of him.

    Admiral Winnefeld

    Yeah, and they were best buddies growing up. So he misses his little buddy. Johnny boy, he called him.

    Mary Winnefeld

    Yeah.

    Admiral Winnefeld

    But we’ve all learned from it and L.J. definitely so.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    It’s amazing that when people like you and your entire family now speak out like this, it really does puncture, at least momentarily, that shame and stigma and people do come, they flock often to you when you speak out and share your story. They’re so hungry, sometimes even desperate to be able to tell somebody, “I’m struggling,” or, “My mom or my sister or my brother or my dad, my son, they’re struggling.”

    Mary Winnefeld

    Yeah. You can almost time it. For me, Sunday mornings for some reason, a friend of a friend will hand out my information and I’ll get a call or an email of a family that’s in crisis. For some reason, I don’t know why Sunday mornings, but maybe they’re just at home knowing they can’t go through another week the way that they’re going, that people will reach out. That’s our motto. We want to save a life every day. So we’re here to support anyone and everyone.

    Admiral Winnefeld

    The interesting thing with the kind of work that our nonprofit does, the input metrics are all over the place; how many kids have we talked to? How many Deterra bags have we handed out for destroying opioids and that kind of thing. The output metric of how many lives have you saved is really hard to measure. You don’t know necessarily that you saved a life, except for those rare moments when you get an email from somebody.

    Admiral Winnefeld

    I’ll never forget. Early on in this journey, we got an email from a gentleman who said, “I’m sitting here in the emergency room with my 14 year old son who is addicted to opioids, and we’ve decided we’re going to take control of this and we’re going to get him into treatment. The reason we’re here is because we read your stuff.” It just kind of makes you go for another day. There are a few other examples of that that we’ve run into along the way that make us at least believe in our hearts that we’re making a difference out there in a lot of different ways with all the different things that we do, but the metrics are hard.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    I have no doubt you are both making an incredible difference, both of you and L.J. Admiral Winnefeld, Mary, thank you so much for talking with us today. Thank you for your service to our country. And thank you for all the work you do helping families who are struggling in really, really difficult times.

    Admiral Winnefeld

    Well, you’re very welcome, Elizabeth. And thank you for bringing more light to bear on this very, very big challenge that our country faces. We appreciate it.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    It is. It’s a crisis. It’s a public health emergency. It is a crisis. It is an epidemic as you have said. Again, they co-founded the SAFE Project. It’s a non-profit committed to overcoming the epidemic of addiction in the United States. You can find more information about the organization online.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Thank you so much for listening to my talk with Admiral Winnefeld and his wife, Mary. You can find this podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and on our website at drugfree.org/podcast. If you want to learn more about SAFE Project, visit SAFEProject.us. As a reminder, if you need help with a loved one who’s struggling with substance use, text 55753, or visit us at drugfree.org. Talk to you soon.

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    Published

    March 2021