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A Navy Success Story Still Unfolding

Hospital Is Gone, but Pioneering Alcoholism Program's Legacy Lives

November 02, 1997|DOUGLAS P. SHUIT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a time when heavy drinking was the center of macho, old salt rituals in the Navy, sustaining the image of the drunken sailor. The drinking was condoned until it got out of hand. Then the punishment could be as severe as a court-martial.

Back in 1965, newly recovering alcoholic and retired Navy Cmdr. Dick Jewell wanted to know why the Navy wasn't doing more about alcoholism. He took his questions to Dr. Joseph J. Zuska, then the senior medical officer at the Long Beach Naval Station on Terminal Island.

"I had no answers," said Zuska, 84, now a retired Navy captain. "The Navy, including myself, had no real understanding of the disease process of alcoholism."

He would soon learn. And those lessons would become the cornerstone of the Navy's highly successful alcoholism treatment program.

At the Terminal Island station, Zuska organized a group of former drunks, denizens of psychiatric wards and candidates for courts-martial into respectable enough citizens to change the way the Navy viewed alcoholism.

Gains were so remarkable that Zuska called them a "therapeutic phenomenon."

Now the famous Navy hospital at Carson Street and the 605 Freeway, to which the program later expanded, is being torn down. The facility, where former First Lady Betty Ford and other VIPs detoxed, will be replaced by a "big box" shopping center and an AutoNation USA mega used-car lot.

But the hospital has built its own monument in thousands of transformed lives. Its success resonated to the highest levels of government and expanded to other branches of the service and bases around the globe.

The pioneering program's most enduring contribution was linking these once disreputable characters with the starch and polish of the Navy's medical establishment, treatment specialists say. And that model has become its legacy to public and private rehab programs--a legacy that will continue to be felt for years to come.

Treatment in Long Beach revolved around inpatient medical care, daily group therapy, psychological counseling, lectures and movies on alcoholism and--as a consequence of that first meeting between Jewell and Zuska--daily attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

What at the time was the still relatively new marriage of medicine and grass-roots AA group sessions in an inpatient hospital setting would become a standard that still exists in many recovery programs across the nation.

"I made people go to a meeting every night," said Dr. Joseph A. Pursch, who succeeded Zuska as the program's director in 1973. "We had a meeting every Thursday night in the hospital. We had men and women from the outside come in." On other nights, Pursch said, Navy vans took patients to AA meetings in Long Beach, Signal Hill and other cities.

As commanders at sea began seeing problem drinkers stay sober, they passed the word to send drunks to Long Beach.

"These were the kind of men no one wanted," Pursch said. "When their orders came up and they were transferred, everyone celebrated. They were no good."

The treatment and results, Pursch said, were unlike anything else he had seen--"so new, so revolutionary, so interesting. I could see terribly sick, unwanted and despised characters showing up in that place, and six weeks later they were on the road to recovery."

In the 1970s, Pursch--a career Navy psychiatrist who would go on to write a syndicated newspaper column--dramatically raised the program's profile. He treated Ford at the hospital in 1978, leading the way for other VIPs--Billy Carter, former U.S. Sen. Herman Talmadge of Georgia and Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

"The way to treat VIPs is not to treat them like VIPs," Pursch likes to say. "That was their problem."

Ford and other celebrities had to clean their rooms, do simple chores around the hospital and live in four-person rooms the same as everyone else.

"Joe Pursch had put me in a room with three other patients, instead of giving me the private room I'd demanded," Ford wrote in "Betty: A Glad Awakening." "Right off, he was telling me, 'Hey, lady, you may have been the wife of a president, but in here, you're nothing special.' "

In today's climate, it can be difficult to appreciate just how pioneering the Navy program was. From its modest beginnings it would go on to attract international attention.

After that day in 1965 when Jewell confronted Zuska, the physician began holding weekly AA meetings--the first officially recognized ones in the Navy--in a Terminal Island naval station conference room quickly dubbed "Dry Dock 1."

When Zuska's mostly underground treatment program quickly outgrew the conference room, he moved it to a rusted-out Quonset hut. He later found an 80-bed barracks and turned it into an inpatient recovery facility.

In 1967, Zuska got Pentagon approval to start the first official Alcohol Rehabilitation Center, though it still had pilot program status.

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