If you or a loved one is experiencing thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255, which offers a crisis line specifically for service members and veterans.
A positive drug test can be the beginning of the end to a military career but overcoming substance abuse may also mark the beginning of a new and different chapter. A recently filed lawsuit seeks to provide veterans who were discharged because of misconduct tied to substance abuse a path to honorable discharges that qualify them for federal benefits. While my story is different than the veteran behind the lawsuit, I also made the unimaginable choice to use illegal drugs while I was in the Army. I fought addiction — and for the help I needed — and forged a new path for myself as my military service ended.
Working long days — 10 and sometimes 15 hours — in the Military Police Corps, responding to stressful calls like suicides and domestic violence incidents, kept me away from my family and ultimately put a strain on my marriage. At one point, I remember being so consumed with grief that I was contemplating suicide for the first time in my life.
Inexplicable sorrow and darkness filled the room as I sat there with a pen and paper, writing what would be a suicide letter to my family and friends. Next to my paper laid my handgun and a bottle of alcohol. I can recall how my sole priority was to express to my family that it was not their fault, nor was there anything they could have done to save me. Tears ran down my face while I held the gun to my head, shaking and cursing aloud not understanding what led me to this moment.
In that instant I knew something was gravely wrong, and instead of pulling the trigger I decided to self-enroll into behavioral health. My journey of self love and understanding started with the choice of putting myself before the Army and all the negative stereotypes that infect soldiers at every level. I learned more about myself in the small time spent with counselors than I had learned over the course of my entire life. If it were not for that decision, the trials that I would soon face would have surely taken my life.
My then-wife and daughter left the state, leaving me alone in something I could no longer call a home. My daughter’s toys and stickers were left randomly throughout the house; at every glance it felt as though a knife pierced my heart. Imagine returning home to an empty house, alone, and with constant reminders of what you have lost.
I soon found myself back in a dangerous and dark mental state. The suicidal thoughts started to creep back into my mind, and this time I didn’t think any amount of counseling could fill the hole in my heart, nor place my daughter back in my arms. That is when I decided to self-medicate with hard drugs — something no one would have ever guessed I would do — to escape my newfound reality.
Cocaine became my drug of choice, and from the very first line I became a slave to addiction. Addiction didn’t care that I was a sergeant in the Military Police Corps, nor the retention and chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear non-commissioned officer of my company. Addiction completely ravished my personal and professional life. One day I received a call from my squad leader at 4 a.m. informing me that the entire company had a random urine analysis. What I did in darkness would now come to light.
I wish I could tell you that after my addictions were revealed I was healed, but that’s not how addiction works. I waited weeks to receive any mandatory substance abuse treatment. My appointments were continuously rescheduled due to staffing shortages, all while I was still suffering from addiction. There were multiple instances in which I almost died from drug overdoses. Eventually I knew I could not wait for help any longer. I decided to use my commander’s open door policy and plead for help. Being the great man he is, he made sure I got the help I needed. This is what got me into an intensive drug rehabilitation program that saved my life.
After successfully completing the program, I learned that my battalion commander decided to cease my administrative separation and refer my case to a special court martial. There I faced a plethora of potential punishments, to include a bad conduct discharge and jail time. I made the choice to take ownership of my mistakes and explain the circumstances surrounding my conduct to the military judge. Everyone told me that I would be punitively discharged. However, I knew I had to at least try.
Despite the discredit my decisions brought upon the Army and the NCO Corps, my overall service did not deserve to be defined by a few terrible choices within a small period of time. Joining the Army was the best decision of my life, and that is a decision I would never change. If something is important to you, it’s your responsibility to do everything in your power regardless of the likely outcome. That is why I knew I had to put my best foot forward and do everything in my power to mitigate the terms of my inevitable separation — because my service mattered then, just as it matters now.
The judge deliberated, and in accordance with my plea agreement he decided to give me the minimum of 30 days of jail, along with his choice of demotion from sergeant to private. However, he ultimately decided not to discharge me. I served my time in confinement and returned to my same unit after, but now as a newly demoted private. Months later, I was administratively discharged and given a ‘general under honorable conditions’ discharge. I later appealed to the Army Review Board and received a unanimous 5-0 vote in favor for a characterization upgrade to ‘honorable.’ I thank God that I am now winning the battle against addiction and gainfully employed.
I wanted to share my story to assure you that no matter how dark or uncertain your circumstance may be, there is hope. No matter how low you may feel, that pain is only temporary. I want to encourage you to seek help and fight back against all odds. There is life after the Army, and your military experience is just one small chapter of your entire life.
Jonathan Paplia served six years on active duty as a military police officer in the Army. While serving he obtained his bachelor’s degree and achieved the rank of sergeant. He now resides in Arizona as a proud homeowner, and is happily reunited with his daughter Lyra. He is currently enrolled in graduate school to obtain his master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, with the goal of becoming a licensed counselor focusing on substance abuse.
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