My name is John and I’m an alcoholic. Sober by the grace of God, the application of the 12 Steps and the fellowship of the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, I haven’t found it necessary to take a drink since July 22, 1978.
My story starts out much like all of yours. I was born at a very early age. Like some of you I was born into the perfect storm.
What’s the perfect storm you ask?
It’s an alcoholic father and an enabling mother.
However, my perfect storm was intensified a little bit. You see in June of 1959 my mother gave birth to a baby boy – Billy Joe. On the 4th of July, 1959 he died due to a congenital heart disease.
She got pregnant again in 1960 and gave birth to another baby boy Michael Terrance – she buried him two-months later due to SIDS.
I submit to you that there may be nothing in life as painful as the death of a child. Why?
Because it is an aberration of nature; nature is not set-up for parents to bury their children – it is set up for children to bury their parents.
How did my parents deal with these tragic losses? My father threw himself into his work and the bottle and my mother was hospitalized for a diagnosed nervous-breakdown.
So, when I was born in 1963 my mother made a solemn vow – no harm whatsoever would come to this child. Alas, that just wasn’t meant to be.
By the time I was four years-old I had my first drink. It was Thanksgiving and while my parents were watching football, I went around and drained all the mini-wine glasses at the Thanksgiving table.
As you read this you may be thinking, he really didn’t know what he was doing because he was so young.
I submit to you I think I knew very well what I was doing. I think growing up in an alcoholic household that I already figured out that there was something magical in that bottle. Whenever that bottle was corked conversation turned to laughter; mundane turned to merriment. I think I knew at the ripe old age of four-years-old that there was magic in that bottle and I wanted some of it.
By the time I was nine I was stealing liquor from my father’s liquor cabinet. One time I got so drunk that I threw-up all over my room. My mother would came in the next morning and ask what happened. I lied to cover-up my drinking. I told her that I had the stomach-flu.
She said, “Go back to bed. I’ll be back in to clean it up”.
I learned a powerful lesson that day. I learned I could drink as much as I wanted. I learned that there were no consequences for my behavior. And I learned that someone would come behind me and clean-up after me. And for a budding alcoholic those were powerful lessons. It was game-on from there.
By the time I was fifteen my life was a mess. I had been picked up the police - twice. I had been court ordered to counseling, placed on probation, and if I violated the law again I was going to be thrown into a boy’s correctional institution until the age of eighteen.
I would wake up in the morning with self-loathing. I hated what I was doing to my family and myself. I contemplated brushing my teeth with a shotgun.
One particular evening I was down at Riverside Park in my hometown of St. Cloud, MN. A friend approached me. We started to party and the next thing I know I’m dying. I’ve collapsed on the ground. My eyes have sunken back into my head, I have lost consciousness, my respiration is slowing my heart-beat is slowing and I’m dying.
I had heard that you can see your life flash before you just before you die – that happened to me. My life was flashing before me and here’s how it looked. It was a Super 8mm film, in grainy black and white and it would skip from frame to frame. One frame was me standing in front of the judge lying about my drinking; another was me in my counselors office lying about my drinking; another was me getting into fights with my parents over my drinking.
And then this simple, but profound thought permeated that semi-comatose state I was in and the thought was this – maybe if I stop drinking my life would be less complicated.
My heart beat started to quicken, my respiration deepened and I regained consciousness. I made a vow then and there that I would stop drinking and I would come clean to all the lies.
The next morning I marched into my parents’ bedroom and I told them everything. I told them I was a thief, a liar and a drunk and I needed help.
All my mother could do was burst into tears because she was afraid she was losing another child. But my father – my alcoholic father – he’s looking at me and he’s thinking – kid I’ve spilled more beer on my shirt than you’ve put down your throat – how could you possibly be an alcoholic?
So he says, “I know what we’ll do. We’ll send you to the seminary at St. John’s because God knows we don’t have any alcoholic priests.”
Well, I hadn’t been sober more than six hours, but I quickly figured out that these two weren’t going to be much help. So I went over to my probation officer’s office and I told her the same thing. I said, “I’m a liar, thief and a drunk and I need help.”
And she said, “I know”.
I said, “you know – how did you know?” (You see I thought I was really good at hiding it).
And she said, “You know that garage where you and your friends like to gather before school and party?”
“Yeah”, I said.
She said, “You know that garage where you and your friends would gather in the afternoons to party?”
“Yeah”, I said.
She said, “You know that garage where you and your friends would gather on the weekends to party?”
“Yeah”, I said.
She said, “It’s my garage”.
I said, “It’s your garage, why didn’t you say something? You could have had me thrown into a correctional facility?”
And she said “Yes, but you weren’t ready, but I think you’re ready now. Have you ever heard of the program of Alcoholics Anonymous? I want you to go there tonight. There is a meeting at 6:30 called the Thursday Night Young People’s Group”.
So I arrived at my first meeting of A.A. in June of 1978 and boy was I scared. People were hugging each other and they were old – really old. I mean they had to be 20-25 years old.
Then someone came up to me and said, “Hey kid, you must be new here.”
And I thought, Oh no, they read minds here.
Then someone said, “Hey kid, do you want a cigarette?”
And I said, “Ahh, sir I don’t smoke, but if you think it will help I’d be willing to try.”
And he said, “Yeah kid, it will help”.
So, thanks to A.A. I started smoking.
Then someone came up to me and said, “Hey kid, you want a cup of coffee?”
And I said, “Ahh sir, I don’t drink coffee, but if you think it would help, I’d be willing to try.”
And he said, “Yeah kid, it will help”.
So, thanks to A.A. I started drinking coffee. Now I don’t smoke anymore, but I’m still drinking coffee like a fiend.
And then they didn’t ask anything more of me. They just let me sit and soak it all in. When it came my turn to introduce myself I just said, “Pass”, and no one batted an eye.
After the meeting someone came up to me and said, “Hey kids, some of us are going out for coffee would you like to come with?”
And I said, “well-yes-I-would-because-I-just-started-drinking-coffee-and-I-love-coffee”.
And that was my first introduction to A.A. .
But there was a fatal flaw in my A.A. program. You see I was on the 1-1-1 plan.
What’s the 1-1-1 plan you ask?
It’s going to one meeting, once a week, for one-hour. And that lasted for two-weeks. It was the 4th of July and a good friend of mine was in town for the holiday celebration. He said to me, “Hey I hear you’ve been going to A.A. Do you want to party?”
And I thought I’ve been going to A.A. now for two weeks, I’ve made two meetings, I’m feeling better and besides it’s our nation’s birthday, I can have just one – right? One won’t hurt me.
That was at 11 a.m. on the 4th of July. By 11 p.m. I was going through garbage cans looking for beer cans that might have some backwash beer left in them.
So back to my meeting I went.
I told them I slipped and they didn’t ask anything of me. No one confronted me. No one shamed me. No one blamed me. No one got in my grill and grilled me. And thank God because if they had I would have bolted and never come back.
I stayed sober two more weeks, but there was another fatal flaw in my program. I wasn’t willing to give up the faces and the places. You see I thought I was unique. I thought I was different. I thought I didn’t have to work the program like all of you did. I thought because I was so young I could take a couple of short cuts. I thought I had found an easier, softer way.
I went back to Riverside Park – the place where I almost died a month earlier – and another good friend of mine approached me. He said, “Hey, I hear you’ve been sober for a couple of weeks – let’s party”.
This time it was as if I was having an out-of-body experience. I saw one person standing there screaming, “Get out of there – leave – turn away”.
And then I saw a shell of a boy relapsing again. But, after I relapsed I got out of there. I went back to my bedroom, fell down on my knees, looked to the heavens and said, “Dear God, please help me - because I can’t do this anymore”.
And like a fever leaving my body I felt the obsession and craving for alcohol dissipate and I haven’t had a drink since then.
I went into a thirty-day, 12-step based treatment program and I when I came out I was ready to get back into A.A. They told me I needed to get a sponsor. So, I asked someone to be my sponsor.
I asked my sponsor how many meetings of A.A. I should go to a week. He asked me how many times a week I partied.
I said, “Well, everyday”.
He said, “Well, there’s your answer, Sherlock”.
So for my first 365 days of sobriety, I went to 365 meetings.
I started reading the Big Book, and Living Sober. I went through the steps. I started volunteering at the meetings. I got involved in service work and I got in the middle of A.A.
Why the middle you ask?
Because it’s the safest place to be; when you’re in the middle you can’t fall off the edge.
Armed with the program of A.A., I was able to reintegrate back into my home life. I was able to finish high school and I went on to college.
A.A. started to have a profound effect on my family. My brother started going to meetings and recently celebrated 35 years of sobriety. My father even started going to meetings as well as my sister. A.A. was changing my life, my family and my world for the better.
When it came time to finish college, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I had massive amounts of student debt (almost ten-thousand dollars). The economy was tanking, and jobs were hard to find. I didn’t know where to turn. And then a commercial came on that had a catchy little jingle – it said “Be all that you can be”.
And I thought, that’s it – I’ll join the Army! They’ll pay back my student loans, send me to Europe and I’ll get paid for working out – yeah!
So down to my local recruiter I went.
Next thing I knew I was sent to Ft. Lost in the Woods Misery, and then off to Ft. Jackson, South Carolina and then shipped off to Augsburg, Germany home of the VII Corps Field Artillery.
We had one English speaking A.A. meeting in Augsburg a week and I would attend it faithfully. One week a First Sergeant came into the meeting with a young Soldier in tow. He looked at me and said, “You’ve got to talk to this kid. He’s got a drinking problem.” Then he left.
Both of us just stared at each other and then I did what I had been taught to do in the program of A.A. I started sharing my story.
I didn’t talk down to him, I didn’t shame or blame him, I just started talking about my drinking problem, how I got sober and what my life was like today. The meeting ended and he left.
Next week, to my amazement, he came back and this time he brought a friend. This newcomer says to me “You’ve got to talk to my buddy; he drinks more than I do”.
And so it began, our little once-a-week English speaking A.A. meeting, turned into a twice a week meeting, then three, then four and suddenly we were meeting seven-days a week.
Young guys whose lives were being destroyed by alcohol suddenly found the miracle of recovery through the program of Alcoholics Anonymous.
And how did this all come about?
To understand the answer to that question you have to go back to Dec 1934 when our co-founder Bill W. sobered up. After years of hard drinking he is suddenly and miraculously relieved of his alcoholism. For six months afterward he works with dozens of drunks in the New York area, but none of them sober up. Dejected, he goes home one-day and says to his wife Lois, “I’ve worked with dozens of drunks and not a one of them is sober”.
And Lois responds “Yes, but you are”.
And it hits him – the answer to this thing is giving it away. I stay sober when I work with other alcoholics. And whether or not they stay sober is beside the point. I keep my sobriety when I give it away.
That’s how our little meeting in Augsburg grew from one meeting a week to seven meetings a week. The guys who got sober kept giving it away.
While we were there the wall fell in Berlin. And what was the group’s reaction? We sent boxes full of A.A. literature to bring into countries like Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
We did so to give back freely that which had been given to us. We did so in order to carry the message of A.A. into areas that previously had a hard time obtaining A.A. information and literature.
We understood like Bill did that if we wanted to keep this thing – we had to give it away. Like it says on page 89 of our Big Book, “Nothing will so much ensure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics. It works when other activities fail”.
Like it says in our Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions on page 99, “for it is in giving that we receive”.
After my assignment in Germany ended I bounced around to different locations and in 2006 I came down on orders for Iraq. I was apprehensive about an assignment to a combat zone. I had multiple assignments overseas, but never to a combat zone.
I left the U.S. in January of 2007 and 72 hours later I was stepping off a C-130 in Tallil, Iraq. On the tarmac I started looking around to get my bearings and I spied a chapel steeple.
I felt something drawing me to the chapel and I thought, Before I check-in, before I stow my gear, I’m just going to go over to the chapel and say a prayer of thanks.
I walked into the chapel and I spied a bulletin board. I walked over to it and saw a flier which read, “The Camel Spider A.A. group of Tallil, Iraq meets three-times a week, Mondays, Wednesdays and Sundays”.
Here I was six-thousand miles away from home in a combat zone and God saw fit to put me on a combat out-post that had an A.A. meeting three-times a week. I thought about the words on page 84 in our Big Book which state, “And God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves”.
The Camel Spider A.A. Group became my home-group for the next six-months of my tour to Tallil, Iraq.
While I was at Tallil my Commanding Officer came up to me one day and told me he needed me to go up to Balad to do some work for the Brigade. He said there was a convoy moving out at 0600 hundred the next morning and to be on it.
“Roger that,” I told him.
The next morning I reported to the convoy as instructed. Prior to departure they gave us the intelligence brief. They said we would be proceeding north toward Baghdad, but we had to take the Baghdad bypass to go to Balad. (Balad was nicknamed Mortarita-Ville because it received mortar attacks weekly).
Furthermore, the intelligence officers told us we would have to go through check-point 51A. Check-point 51A was the most notorious check-point in all of Iraq because it received insurgent attacks daily.
Additionally, on the way up we had to keep our eyes peeled for IEDs, small arms fire, muzzle flashes and anything else suspicious. Pucker factor fully increased, I got into my HUMVEE.
We pulled out of Tallil and an hour later we were stopped dead in our tracks – sandstorm. The air was so thick with dust we couldn’t see anything. All we could do was wait until it was over. 12 hours later we continued our journey.
By the time the convoy started its trek I had already been up 14 hours. By the time we got food and fuel that evening I was dogged tired. By the time midnight rolled I couldn’t stay awake. Next thing I knew we are pulling into Balad.
I asked the HUMVEE driver, “Where are we?” He tells me Balad.
“What happened at check-point 51A?” I asked.
“Nothing”, he replies. “They just waved us through”.
I begin to think all the information about check-point 51A was just a ruse, but I keep those thoughts to myself as I set about my business.
After a quick shower and some breakfast I go to the office where I am supposed to conduct my business. I meet another Soldier there and we begin the obligatory small talk you engage in whenever you meet someone new. From our name tags we could see that we both came from Irish families and we talked about growing up in a Catholic home.
And then I asked him, “What are you going to do after your tour is over?”
I’m taking my family to Hawaii, “he says”.
“Oh that’s cool”, I said. “My brother lives in Hawaii”.
“What does he do there”, he asks.
I said, “He’s a drug and alcohol counselor for the Army Medical Command”.
Oh, he says. “He must be in the CIA”.
“CIA?” - I said, “No, he’s a drug and alcohol counselor”.
And he says “No, I mean Catholic, Irish, and Alcoholic.”
To which I replied “Yeah – me too”.
To which he said, “Yeah – me too. Do you want to go to a meeting tonight?”
Now here I am six-thousand miles away from home, on a place nick-named Mortarita-Ville because it sustains mortar attacks weekly, and God sees fit to put me in the office of another sober member of the program Alcoholics Anonymous. And again I thought of those words from page 84 in the Big Book…“And God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves”.
That evening I had the privilege of going to the very first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous that was established in Iraq.
The meeting started in 2003 when Soldiers stationed there started an A.A. meeting for themselves and for any Soldiers who may come after them. Four years later that meeting was still going strong.
With my assignment finished in Balad, I returned to Tallil. Back at Tallil I went to the intelligence section. I told them they had really done a number on me and I had to hand it to them. All that stuff they told us about check-point 51A really got my pucker factor going and it was a good joke.
“When did you go through check-point 51A?”
“About 0400 on Friday morning”, I told them.
They said “Check-point 51A was attacked 37 times this weekend”.
And again I thought, “And God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves”.
Back at Tallil I fell into my regular routine of going to work and going to my meetings.
On one particular Sunday I went to worship, then chow and then I was going to my meeting. However, after chow I had to stop by the latrine.
Now in Iraq there was very little indoor plumbing. Most of the latrines were porta-potties. These porta-potties contain feces and urine that bakes in excess of 130F. Moreover, because they are just a plastic enclosures the inside temperature can reach almost 150F. So, if you can avoid using a porta-potty you try your best to do so.
Next to the chow hall was the Brigade Headquarters and attached to the headquarters was an indoor bathroom with real plumbing and air conditioning – a true oasis.
So I thought I would hit the indoor latrine, do my business and be off to my meeting.
While I was doing my business I heard the first rocket come over head and land about 400 meters from my location.
“Oh crap,” I thought - which was pretty appropriate considering my position.
Then I heard the next rocket go over head and it landed about 300 meters from my location.
Now when you are under attack seconds seem like hours and in the course of what seemed like hours I realized what was happening. The enemy was walking the rockets in having established the farthest point on the base. They would send each subsequent rocket a little shorter distance until they hit their target which was the Brigade Headquarters - which was where the latrine was located – which was where I was located.
Now when I deployed to Iraq, I considered the possibility of being killed, but if I was going to die I wanted my death to be heroic or an honorable death. I really didn’t want to be taken out by shrapnel while I was taking a crap. I started to panic.
Then suddenly this incredible peace and calm came over me and this voice inside my head said, “What are you afraid of? Don’t you know that you died twenty-nine years ago and you have been living on borrowed time?”
And I replied, “Lord, let your will be done,” and I braced for the impact.
The third rocket veered off course struck outside the base and the attack was over. And again I thought, “And God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves”.
Incidentally, it was the best bowel movement I ever had.
The next day as I was walking to work and I ran into my boss. “How was your A.A. meeting last night?” he asked me.
I said, “Come-on boss, you know we had a rocket attack last night - everything got shut down”.
He said, “Wow – I’ll bet that’s the first time you ever got bombed on your way to an A.A. meeting”.
My assignment to Tallil ended in July of 2007, but in 2008 I came down on orders to redeploy to Iraq. This time I was headed to the area of Basra, Iraq.
When I got to Basra in 2009 I did not have the good fortune of an A.A. meeting waiting there for me. So I and a few other A.A. members decided to start one. And since Basra is believed to be the home of the original Garden of Eden, we had to name the meeting the Eden A.A. Group.
Now I don’t know if the Eden A.A. Group is still going today, but I do know that for nine months it helped five drunks stay sober.
People have asked me how can I deploy to a combat zone and not drink. I tell them I can’t imagine deploying to a combat zone without the program of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Today retired from active duty, but I’m still in the middle of A.A. . I sponsor men and I have a sponsor. I require my sponsees to call me 5x a week and to meet with me once a week. We read the Big Book together and we attend meetings together. I have a home group which just happens to be the same A.A. meeting I attended 39 years ago.
I’m involved in service work and I help veterans struggling with alcoholism by bringing a meeting of A.A. into the St. Cloud VA.
And why do I do all this?
Because I believe I have a responsibility to give back freely that which was given to me. I do this because like Bill W. I understand that if I want to keep this thing I have to give it away. I do this because like it says on page 89 of our Big Book “Nothing will so much ensure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics.” I do this because it says in our Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions on page 99, “for it is in giving that we receive”.