After the Air Force: How I Got My Wings Back

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

It’s been more than twenty years since I left the service, but I can still salute, with my fingers straight and perfectly aligned, as though I were back at the base.

At the age of eighteen, I saw the Air Force as less of a patriotic duty than a means to an end—a way to finance my college education. But the military played a much more pivotal role in my life than I had imagined. Working in inventory management for four years, I had the opportunity to travel to 29 states and nine different countries. The experience opened my eyes to new cultures and places, and taught me the importance of hard work and discipline.

And, it also taught me how to medicate my feelings with alcohol and drugs. One of the only African American women on our base in Texas, I was young and unprepared to deal with the racial and sexual harassment I faced. Adding to the stress, my tours, lasting three to twelve weeks at a time, required constant traveling—often on fourteen-hour flights, strapped in a C-130 aircraft, in the middle of the night. To cope with the intensity of our work, we regularly binged—and the commanding officers turned a blind eye. If we didn’t like to drink, we could easily find marijuana, LSD, or acid. Sometimes, we’d even take speed before getting on the plane.

The structure of the Air Force kept my drug use to a level where I could still meet everyday responsibilities, but my life began a downward spiral once I returned home. I got into cocaine and eventually transitioned to crack. Within two years, my addiction reached a boiling point. I lost my car, my job at a cosmetics company, and ultimately, I became homeless. Still, I didn’t seek help; the Air Force had trained me to be tough and to believe that I could handle my problems on my own.

It was only after my mom refused to let me come home for Thanksgiving and I participated in a summer tent revival that I finally reached out. I asked my mother to call a relative who had completed the program at Phoenix House and had gone on to work there. I entered Phoenix House on October 12, 1989 and have never looked back.

Today, as I march with Phoenix House in the Veterans Day Parade, I will think of the young men and women returning home after so bravely serving our country. According to the latest NIDA research, 25-30% of Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans have reported symptoms of a mental disorder or cognitive impairment—post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) being the most common. Between 2004 and 2006, 7.1% of veterans (an estimated 1.8 million people 18 or older) met criteria for substance abuse.

If my story could be an example to any one of these young people, I would tell them, “Psychological wounds are as real as physical ones. If you find yourself turning to alcohol or drugs, don’t think you can manage addiction on your own.”

As we honor our veterans, we must work to overcome the stigma of treatment. I am living proof that recovery is possible. Twenty years sober, I now have a career that fulfills me in ways that drugs never could—and a marriage to a man I’ve loved for 18 years.

This Veterans Day, I salute both my military family and my Phoenix House family for helping me to become the strong, resilient person I am today.

Deirdre Rice-Reese
Vice President, Director of Quality Assurance, Phoenix House
Former SSgt, USAF
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