Some 87,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in the 12-month period ending in September 2020, according to preliminary data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Officials expect the final numbers to rise even higher.
Many people and organizations are working to offer hope and healing to addicts and their families. Today we’re featuring one of them here in a Q&A.
This interview is part of Mainstreet Daily News’ April series on opioid awareness, culminating in the DEA National Drug Take Back Day on Saturday—when the federal government calls on all Americans to turn in unused prescription drugs. We’ve previously featured interviews with addicts, family members of addicts, law enforcement, health professionals and others.
Today’s interview, which first aired on The Shepherd Network, is with retired U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Dean Lee, who served as operational commander for all Coast Guard missions from the Rocky Mountains to the Arabian Gulf from 2014 to 2016. A big part of his role included drug interdiction on the high seas, but now he works with a ministry to addicts in Chesterfield, Virginia.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
MIKE GILLAND: How did you become involved in this issue?
DEAN LEE: After I retired, a local sheriff in my hometown who has known me for years asked me if I would come and visit his jail. He wanted to show me a program that he had just put in place for heroin addicts. And I didn't want to go. I'd never been in a jail and, and frankly, didn't think much of drug users, drug runners, drug pushers. And so I kept making excuses not to go.
Well, one day, he kind of cornered me, found me at a local restaurant and asked me what I was doing that afternoon. He had me dead to rights. And before I knew it, I'm down in the jail. We walk into a pod with 44 of the hardest looking tattooed man that you could imagine. It was a scene like right out of Hollywood. And I was nervous as a cat. I asked him, “What do you want me to do?” He said, “Just go to talk to them.”
And so I kind of ease out in the middle of this, this huge jail pod, surrounded by all these faces staring at me. And I was honest—I said, “Guys, I'm nervous. This is a new experience for me. But I confess, you know, I've been working most of my life to put guys like you in in jail, and here I am in jail, with ya. And I can tell you pretty much anything you want to know about the production and distribution of cocaine, right down to the metric tons chip, but I couldn't tell you anything about what it's like to be you because I've never had that conversation. Help me understand what it's like to be you, to be an addict.”
And over the course of the next hour or so, those guys hooked my heart. And I've been going back to that jail every week, sometimes twice a week, for the last four-and-a-half years. I have learned more about the human condition by those men and women in that jail—hardcore heroin addicts, cocaine addicts—than I learned in the first 62 years of my life in the military.
MG: Isn't it easy to dehumanize this problem? We can easily forget that these are suffering people with feelings and struggles. And often a prescription ends up being a gateway to addiction, to harder drugs, and can end up leading to jail or, worse, death.
DL: In the last two weeks we've lost five people from our program to overdoses. These are people that had gotten out of jail, and we had high hopes that they were going to be able to kick their habit. I mean, they tried real hard. But fentanyl is a bad demon in American society.
One thing I've learned about these addicts is that they cover the whole spectrum of society. I've met nurses in there, telephone linemen who were actually working while they were under the influence of heroin. People who, like you mentioned, got hooked on opioids, from prescription medication after some sports injury or something.
But then on the other end of that spectrum, I'm sad to say is, there's a lot of young women in particular who were introduced to drugs by their own mother, who was an addict herself and wanted to get their own daughters hooked. Then they prostitute their own daughters out to support both of their habits.
MG: What a sad story.
DL: Yes, it breaks your heart. What I've learned from all of these interactions is this: Some of us in America were fortunate enough to win the parent lottery. And by that I mean born into a normal household with two parents that cared for us, rich or poor, and loved us. We tend to look down our long noses of moral superiority at people who end up in jail with no knowledge whatsoever of what kind of background they came from. Many of them had no chance at all. And that's why I continue going up there—for the sole purpose of giving them hope. Because so many of them have lost hope. Almost every one of them has contemplated suicide not once or twice, but multiple times in their life. Their struggle is real.
MG: The stakes are very high.
DL: Amen. When I came offline from the military, I was accustomed to going 14-15 hours a day at the office, and then all of a sudden, I found myself with a lot of time on my hands. The most rewarding thing I found that I could fill it with is trying to help somebody else.
MG: How do you give them hope?
DL: Well, let me tell you the miracles I’ve observed. My phone is full of pictures of drug addicts with big smiles of hope on their faces, and let me tell you what's putting hope on their faces: It is the gospel of Jesus Christ that I've tried to bring to them. There's about three of us that go up there routinely. And we don't go up here to preach to them, because I'm not a preacher. I just go in there and share with them about my faith. We'll talk about faith, and we'll talk about life. We'll talk about the conundrums of life and leadership and all of that.
I always pray with them at the end of my sessions, and one day I said, "Guys, I know a couple of you have come to me and said you want to accept Christ and be baptized." So I told them I'd find a way to make that happen. Then I said, "Is there anybody else in here that would like to accept Christ and go through a baptismal ceremony?" And 37 hands go up.
Then I went down to the women's side and did the same thing. The next week we brought a big galvanized horse trough from Tractor Supply, put it in the rec yard at the jail, ran a water hose to it, filled it up, and baptized 57 people.
MG: That is amazing.
DL: The amazing thing was listening to them tell their testimony before they went down and then to see the smile on their faces when they came up. That's what I call hope.
This is the fourth in a series bringing awareness to the opioid epidemic. To hear the full episode of Afternoons With Mike featuring this interview and five more on hope, click here.