Joseph Zuska, 93; Navy doctor developed treatment for alcoholism

Times Staff Writer

Inside a rusted Quonset hut at the Long Beach Naval Station, Dr. Joseph J. Zuska operated a clandestine program, treating sailors for an illness that in the eyes of the Navy did not exist.

It was the mid-1960s, a time when alcoholism and its accompanying behavior were treated as violations of Navy policy, punishable by time in the brig. Yet the atmosphere on base and at sea encouraged heavy drinking. The abiding image of the drunk sailor was a reality for many.

Zuska obituary: The obituary of Dr. Joseph J. Zuska in the May 24 California section said Long Beach Naval Hospital was on Terminal Island. The hospital was located in east Long Beach. The alcohol treatment program Zuska started was believed to be the first for the Navy, not for the armed forces as the obituary stated. —

After a conversation with a retired Navy commander who was also a recovering alcoholic, Zuska began treating the illness as a medical problem. His underground program, the first in the history of the armed forces, eventually earned national acclaim, providing a model for other branches of the military and private industry.

Zuska died May 17 at Los Alamitos Medical Center of complications from kidney failure and other illnesses, his son, John Zuska, said. He was 93.

“He’s well-loved by thousands of alcoholics across the country whose lives he actually saved, including mine,” said Charley B. who served in the Air Force and was treated by Zuska beginning in 1969.

He asked that his full name not be used, following a tradition that honors the anonymity of Alcoholics Anonymous members.

In the years after Zuska retired in 1970, the rehabilitation program placed many notables on the path to sobriety, including former First Lady Betty Ford; Billy Carter, brother of former President Carter; and Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

The program, which operated out of the Long Beach Naval Hospital on Terminal Island, included inpatient medical care, daily group therapy, psychological counseling, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, lectures and movies on alcoholism.

The highly effective treatment allowed patients to “return to work and saved the Navy money by salvaging people,” said Dr. Ted Williams, director of addiction treatment services at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, who headed the Navy program in the 1980s.

Before the birth of the program, the prevailing belief was that nothing could be done for alcoholics. When doctors made the diagnosis, a sailor could be demoted or booted out of the Navy.

The turnabout for Zuska began with a question. One day in 1965, retired Navy Cmdr. Dick Jewell walked into his office and asked: What are you doing about alcoholism in the Navy?

“I had no answers,” Zuska said in a 1997 Times article. “The Navy, including myself, had no real understanding of the disease process of alcoholism.”

But Jewell, new to the world of sobriety, was full of enthusiasm and the belief that alcoholism could be treated. Zuska, who was the senior medical officer at the Long Beach Naval Station and a captain, had the power, if not the authorization, to put that belief into practice.

“That day they created what became the No. 1 system for treating alcoholics,” said Dr. Joseph A. Pursch, who ran the program after Zuska retired.

Though the program had not been approved by Navy officials, Zuska began holding weekly meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous in a conference room at the naval station, then moved to the Quonset hut when the number of participants grew.

The doctor found an 80-bed barracks and turned it into an inpatient recovery facility. Word soon spread that lives were being changed, and higher-ups in the Navy found out.

“The brass was alarmed for two reasons: According to policy there were no alcoholics in the Navy at that time, hence there was no need for a treatment policy; and there were quite a few alcoholic admirals and generals on active duty in the Pentagon,” Pursch wrote in a 1987 column for The Times.

A commission was sent to investigate what was called an illegal activity, but it acknowledged that the Navy had alcoholics and that the treatment program Zuska had created was effective.

In 1967 the Pentagon gave Zuska approval for the first official Alcohol Rehabilitation Center, and by 1971, 70% of 900 patient admissions showed “demonstrated improvement.”

In the 1980s the Navy’s surgeon general sent doctors to Long Beach to learn from the program. The Navy eventually opened 33 rehabilitation centers around the world.

By the early 1990s the Navy had shut down the hospital and later scaled back the program in favor of outpatient treatment.

An increase in awareness about alcoholism and effective treatments in the military is attributed to Zuska.

Zuska was born in Chicago on June 9, 1913, and earned his medical degree from the University of Illinois. He married Martha Josephine Parham in 1939, and the couple had two children. In addition to his son, of Oakland, Zuska is survived by daughter Sky St. Cloud of Culver City and granddaughter Sarah Zuska of Berkeley.

During World War II, Zuska provided medical care to Marines during the Battle of Tarawa and at Saipan. In the Korean War, he was chief of surgery on a hospital ship attending to those wounded during the Inchon invasion.

Decades of experience in the military informed his view of the causes of alcoholism. What he saw led him to reject the view widely held in the 1960s that alcoholism was rooted in moral weakness or caused by an emotional problem.

Zuska recalled an officers club where he had to pay for coffee but wine was free. There were bar games such as the “pressure cooker,” in which drinks were 10 cents each until someone left; then they were full price.

People don’t fall off the wagon, Zuska said in a 1976 Times article.

“They’re pushed off by society’s insistence that they have a drink,” he said. “Modern society doesn’t relish the idea that some people can’t drink safely.”