How an Opioid Prescription Led a Former U.S. Navy Sailor to Heroin Addiction

Navy says their drug abuse policy is “zero tolerance.”

“It got to the point where I would take it [heroin] to work with me and smoke it in random bathrooms and compartments in the ship,” a former sailor with the United States Navy said.

According to the sailor, a heroin habit started with a prescription of opioids that followed an umbilical hernia surgery. The identity of the sailor is being protected to prevent potential backlash against him and protect his privacy.

“They knew something was going on but didn’t know what exactly,” the Navy sailor from USS San Diego said about his yearlong, undetected addiction to heroin.

During that time, he said nobody suspected anything.

“There were days where I would be so high I would start nodding out at quarters in the morning, falling asleep standing up in front of the leadership, and I was told to just go hit my rack since I couldn’t keep my eyes open, but that was early in the morning, after a good night’s sleep.”

Clinical professor and director of addiction services at University of California San Diego, Dr. Carla Marienfeld, said no longer feeling a euphoric high from heroin is common for people who become addicted.

“One noticeable sign of the development of addiction is when use is no longer recreational for euphoria or escape, and use continues despite negative consequences such as problems from withdrawal, problems at work. . .” she said.

Other signs of addiction according to Marienfeld, “include craving to use or preoccupation with heroin, loss of control over the use of heroin and continued use of heroin despite negative consequences.”

For the former sailor, the addiction began in 2015 when he had hernia surgery.

“After the surgery, I was sent home with a prescription of 12 count 5 mg Percocet,” he said. “After two days, I was still in a lot of pain, so I went to the hospital by myself to ask for a refill on the pain meds. I was told to take Ibuprofen 800 mg and to drink water and the pain will go away.”

Jen Aichelman, a clinical pharmacist at Naval Hospital Lemoore, California, said prescription of opioids in the Navy is common in instances of post-surgical recovery. However, refills are generally denied.

“If the doctor or provider feels continued treatment of opioids is not indicated or unnecessary, refill requests are usually denied, and non-narcotic medications are recommended instead,” Aichelman said.

Out of options, the former sailor said the step to self-medication was short, and heroin quickly became a habit.

In a statement to NBC 7, a Navy media officer, Rebecca Haggard said, "Navy's policy on drug abuse is 'zero tolerance'. Drug abuse and misuse puts lives and missions at risk, undercuts unit readiness and morale, and is inconsistent with our Navy ethos and core values of honor, courage, and commitment."

Several attempts to quit once he healed from surgery failed, the former sailor said.

“I tried quitting several times, but with a physically demanding job I couldn’t afford to not be well enough to work during the day.”

When he suddenly started losing weight, he said he received a diagnosis of depression after meeting with a Navy psychologist. The diagnosis led to a prescription of anti-anxiety medications.

“I actually went to the ship’s doctor and got a check-up, and he gave me depression meds that I didn’t take, of course,” he said. “I just wanted to cover up getting high. I’m not sure how he didn’t realize something else was wrong because I was high when I went to see him every time.”

According to Marienfeld, “someone with continued use of heroin is more likely to develop or have worsening depression and other mental health problems,” but depression and addiction are two different disorders.

A 2016 report on prescription drug abuse by the Office of the Secretary of Defense shows that during the fiscal year 2015 there was a decline in overall drug abuse in the military. The total DoD drug positive rate, which includes Active Duty, Guard, and Reserve, was 0.84 percent in 2015, according to the report.

The former sailor disagrees. He said while he was using, others were too.

“I usually was the one who had the connections out in town, so they always called me to get them their drug of choice,” he said.

After almost a year of using heroin, the former sailor said a fellow sailor reported him to his supervisor. Following protocol, the Navy sent him to rehab.

“I’m staying clean because I know that, if I don’t, I won’t be able to live a good life,” he said. “I want more out of life than just a stupid drug. I’ve been clean for a few months now. I feel like they [the sailors who use] do it because the ship works us to death. It’s hard working those long hours and getting minimal sleep. I feel they do it to relieve stress and to relax.”

For more information on resources for dealing with an addiction in San Diego County click here. 

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