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A Navy Success Story Still Unfolding

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a time when heavy drinking was the center of macho, old salt rituals in the Navy, sustaining the image of the drunken sailor. The drinking was condoned until it got out of hand. Then the punishment could be as severe as a court-martial.

Back in 1965, newly recovering alcoholic and retired Navy Cmdr. Dick Jewell wanted to know why the Navy wasn’t doing more about alcoholism. He took his questions to Dr. Joseph J. Zuska, then the senior medical officer at the Long Beach Naval Station on Terminal Island.

“I had no answers,” said Zuska, 84, now a retired Navy captain. “The Navy, including myself, had no real understanding of the disease process of alcoholism.”

He would soon learn. And those lessons would become the cornerstone of the Navy’s highly successful alcoholism treatment program.

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At the Terminal Island station, Zuska organized a group of former drunks, denizens of psychiatric wards and candidates for courts-martial into respectable enough citizens to change the way the Navy viewed alcoholism.

Gains were so remarkable that Zuska called them a “therapeutic phenomenon.”

Now the famous Navy hospital at Carson Street and the 605 Freeway, to which the program later expanded, is being torn down. The facility, where former First Lady Betty Ford and other VIPs detoxed, will be replaced by a “big box” shopping center and an AutoNation USA mega used-car lot.

But the hospital has built its own monument in thousands of transformed lives. Its success resonated to the highest levels of government and expanded to other branches of the service and bases around the globe.

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The pioneering program’s most enduring contribution was linking these once disreputable characters with the starch and polish of the Navy’s medical establishment, treatment specialists say. And that model has become its legacy to public and private rehab programs--a legacy that will continue to be felt for years to come.

Treatment in Long Beach revolved around inpatient medical care, daily group therapy, psychological counseling, lectures and movies on alcoholism and--as a consequence of that first meeting between Jewell and Zuska--daily attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

What at the time was the still relatively new marriage of medicine and grass-roots AA group sessions in an inpatient hospital setting would become a standard that still exists in many recovery programs across the nation.

“I made people go to a meeting every night,” said Dr. Joseph A. Pursch, who succeeded Zuska as the program’s director in 1973. “We had a meeting every Thursday night in the hospital. We had men and women from the outside come in.” On other nights, Pursch said, Navy vans took patients to AA meetings in Long Beach, Signal Hill and other cities.

As commanders at sea began seeing problem drinkers stay sober, they passed the word to send drunks to Long Beach.

“These were the kind of men no one wanted,” Pursch said. “When their orders came up and they were transferred, everyone celebrated. They were no good.”

The treatment and results, Pursch said, were unlike anything else he had seen--"so new, so revolutionary, so interesting. I could see terribly sick, unwanted and despised characters showing up in that place, and six weeks later they were on the road to recovery.”

In the 1970s, Pursch--a career Navy psychiatrist who would go on to write a syndicated newspaper column--dramatically raised the program’s profile. He treated Ford at the hospital in 1978, leading the way for other VIPs--Billy Carter, former U.S. Sen. Herman Talmadge of Georgia and Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

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“The way to treat VIPs is not to treat them like VIPs,” Pursch likes to say. “That was their problem.”

Ford and other celebrities had to clean their rooms, do simple chores around the hospital and live in four-person rooms the same as everyone else.

“Joe Pursch had put me in a room with three other patients, instead of giving me the private room I’d demanded,” Ford wrote in “Betty: A Glad Awakening.” “Right off, he was telling me, ‘Hey, lady, you may have been the wife of a president, but in here, you’re nothing special.’ ”

In today’s climate, it can be difficult to appreciate just how pioneering the Navy program was. From its modest beginnings it would go on to attract international attention.

After that day in 1965 when Jewell confronted Zuska, the physician began holding weekly AA meetings--the first officially recognized ones in the Navy--in a Terminal Island naval station conference room quickly dubbed “Dry Dock 1.”

When Zuska’s mostly underground treatment program quickly outgrew the conference room, he moved it to a rusted-out Quonset hut. He later found an 80-bed barracks and turned it into an inpatient recovery facility.

In 1967, Zuska got Pentagon approval to start the first official Alcohol Rehabilitation Center, though it still had pilot program status.

By 1971, there had been 900 patient admissions in Long Beach, with 70% showing “demonstrated improvement,” according to Navy documents. Before long, the Navy had opened 33 rehabilitation centers on bases around the globe.

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Less than 10 years after Zuska started the pilot program, 13,737 Navy and Marine Corps problem drinkers had gone through six- to eight-week inpatient programs worldwide, and 26,479 had been treated as outpatients, according to military records. More than 6,000 openly recovering alcoholics were at sea on active duty in 1976.

Long Beach remained the hub. It was the place where doctors went for help for their own drinking problems or to learn about the treatment of alcoholism.

Even now, old-timers who remember those first shaky years of Navy meetings on Terminal Island have a hard time believing how it all grew.

Each time they drive past the rubble where the hospital once stood, they are filled with sadness. But it passes. For one thing, they are too busy doing what they’ve been doing for years--taking care of each other.

They gather every Wednesday for an AA meeting in a Los Alamitos church, and each month they meet over lunch.

Frank H., a former chief petty officer, was a frequent presence at those early Navy AA meetings. As with other members of the organization, he asked that his last name not be used to honor the program’s tradition of anonymity.

At the group’s September lunch, six former naval officers who had lost promising careers were among the 15 or so AA members present.

Zuska, a soft-spoken opera buff who runs an amateur chamber orchestra out of his Orange County home, was also there. Even now, after all these years, he never is too far away--a gangly, 6-foot-4, white-haired mother hen. These men, and their sobriety, are part of his legacy.

Some of these ex-officers had done turns in psychiatric wards. Others got sober only after facing a court-martial. Frank still has a bullet lodged in his back, a souvenir from a drunken escapade in the early 1960s.

After they left the Navy, several were able to put their advanced degrees to work to get new starts. One went to law school.

They also stayed sober. Frank, who had his last drink 34 years ago, has been alcohol-free longer than anyone else in the group, but the others are not too far behind.

Zuska vividly remembers their first meeting when Dick Jewell brought along a few friends.

“The executive officer, who I later found out had a drinking problem, was there,” Zuska said. “He brought two huge German shepherd police dogs, who were allowed to roam around the room. The meeting consisted mostly of Dick reading from AA’s ‘Big Book.’ We had this sailor who was having a drinking problem, and he was looking at all this apprehensively, wondering, ‘What am I getting myself into?’ ”

The first 30 men who attended the meetings kept drinking.

A heavy drinking culture flourished in the Navy--onshore and at sea. Happy hours where drinks were half price were commonplace. Zuska remembers an officers club where he had to pay for coffee but got wine free.

It wasn’t unusual to see champagne or gin and tonics served at breakfasts, he said. One bar game was called the “pressure cooker.” As long as everyone kept drinking, drinks were 10 cents each. But as soon as someone left, drinks went up to full price. Peer pressure, of course, meant you stayed.

Andy M., 53, a recovering alcoholic and business consultant from Torrance, was in the Navy about the time Zuska and Jewell were getting that first AA meeting off the ground.

“You weren’t supposed to have booze on board ships, but everybody did,” Andy said. “It was like you had to keep up the image of the drunken sailor.

“One time I got drunk and dove into the fountain of the officers club. They took me away from there in a straitjacket. They wound up putting me in a psych hospital overnight. The next morning it was like nothing happened.”

Andy said he was particularly fond of “Poor Richard Night,” the night before payday when cans of beer were 5 cents at the base club. “For $1, you’d buy 20 cans of beer. Everyone would just sit there and get pie-eyed,” he said.

Zuska, who had practiced conventional medicine all his life, said AA was the glue that held the Navy treatment program together.

Tom F., a former New Yorker who now lives in Fountain Valley, agreed.

“We got involved in each others’ lives,” he said. “Our wives knew each other. We played golf together, went to the same meetings.”

After drinking problems destroyed his Navy career, Tom went to law school. He recently retired from a second career as a staff attorney for a federal agency.

Another regular at the hospital meetings was Bill W., who lost a once-promising career as a naval officer and ended up in a psychiatric ward in Long Beach. Now 75 and living in Garden Grove, Bill struggled with AA at first.

“I went to meetings, and I hated it,” said the gruff ex-officer. “There were all these people. They were hugging you, and they wanted you to share. I didn’t want to share. As soon as I could, I snuck out and drank.”

Nonetheless, he got sober. It’s been 22 years since his last drink.

The treatment landscape has undergone watershed changes since the mid-1960s. Now, self-help programs, feel-good seminars and best-selling books peddle too many balms for the psyche to track.

Bigger, better-funded and more prominent naval treatment programs were started in San Diego and elsewhere. Four years after she passed through Long Beach, Ford helped establish the private Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, which quickly eclipsed the fame of the naval program.

Ford and the other designers of the center drew expertise from other successful programs as well as Long Beach, particularly the Hazelden Foundation program in Minnesota, which started the AA treatment model in 1949.

By the early 1990s, with the Navy undergoing a dramatic downsizing, the naval hospital was shut down with hardly a whimper. The alcoholism treatment program had by then evolved into a broad recovery program dealing with drugs, gambling, overeating and other compulsive behavior and was moved to the Marine base at Camp Pendleton.

Capt. Becky Gill, head of the Naval Addictions Rehabilitation and Education Department at Camp Pendleton, worked in Long Beach and stayed with the program when it moved to the Marine base in 1994.

The Navy has cut back its major drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities worldwide to about eight, Gill said. Most of the emphasis these days in the military is on outpatient care. In this case, the Navy is following the private sector, she said.

“What we found is that the best treatment is not necessarily the $5,500 inpatient option,” she said. “We are transitioning into a brand new era.”

Money and budgetary restraints are partly responsible. But it is also widely acknowledged that the old drunken sailors taught the Navy the lesson of alcoholism well.

“The Navy now knows a lot more about alcoholism than it did,” said Michael J. Catanzaro, assistant director of the program at Camp Pendleton. “Problem drinkers are caught long before they reach the final stages of acute alcoholism--when their livers become distended, their skin discolored, their bank accounts empty, their families gone.”


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