An Admiral lost his son to an overdose. Here’s his plan to tackle the opioid epidemic.

Matt Saintsing
August 17, 2018 - 5:41 pm

Photo Courtesy of the SAFE Project


Retired Navy Adm. James “Sandy” Winnefeld dropped off  his 19-year-old son Jonathan at college last September. But three days later he got news no parent ever wants to receive: Jonathan had been found dead from an apparent overdose of fentanyl-laced heroin.

Overdoses took the lives of 72,000 Americans last year, 14,000 more than those who died during the entire Vietnam War. Perhaps none of those families had the advantages of Winnefeld’s, once the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, highlighting just how indiscriminate and deeply entrenched the opioid epidemic is in the United States, which he aptly expressed in the Atlantic last year. 

Now, just weeks away from the one-year anniversary of his son’s untimely death, Winnefeld is leveraging 37-years of military experience to solve America’s opioid epidemic with the Stop the Addiction Fatality Epidemic or S.A.F.E Project, an advocacy group that seeks to eliminate addiction. 

And he’s applying military strategy to get it done. 

“The opioid epidemic is the most complex problem I have ever faced,” Winnefeld told Connecting Vets. “And complex problems don’t lend themselves well to hyper simple solutions.” 

Given his extensive military experience, especially in operational and strategic planning, Winnefeld’s unique expertise creeps through in the project’s six lines of operation. According to Winnefeld, all of the following needs to happen to attack the opioid epidemic: 

  •  Raise public awareness. To gain resources and lower stigma associated with addiction, to lessen the likelihood of new addicts.
  • “Full spectrum” prevention. To target the most vulnerable communities with credible messages and messengers. 

Photo Courtesy of the SAFE Project
  •     Confront prescription practices. Overprescribing of opioid pain medicines is a driving cause of the epidemic, and also what’s sustaining it. 
  •     A coordinated law enforcement and medical response. To confront the supply of addictive substances and to seamlessly flow addicts into medication-assisted treatment. 

Photo Courtesy of the SAFE Project
  •     Treatment and Recovery. To help those who fell into the disease of addiction.
  •     Family outreach and support. Substance use and abuse are incredibly important when getting a loved one to recovery. 

He stresses that all six are needed as they are “deeply interrelated.”

“We have to do all six together, or we’ll fail,” he adds. 

The logic of this six-pronged attack is clear: if public awareness isn’t increased, fewer people will go to treatment. If they only focus on prescription medicine, a large population of already addicted individuals will be ignored. And if the drugs are taken away immediately, those struggling with addiction can find readily available and often more deadly alternatives, like the heroin that claimed Jonathan’s life. 

These six facets are applied in two major thrusts, Safe Communities and Safe Campuses. 

Safe Communities

There are very few communities in the United States that are decreasing overdoses. And the SAFE Project is putting together a package where Winnefeld and others can go into a community and bring all of the stakeholders together to help them understand how the addiction interacts with their locality. 

And they’ll provide a menu that stakeholders—law enforcement, local government, faith-based groups, youth groups, athletic groups, to name a few—can choose from based on what fits them best. 

“We’re very careful to not tell a community what to do, they don’t want that,” says Winnefeld. “They want to have all the options available so they can design their own programs.” 

The project is already beginning to bring communities to the table, in Maryland and Kentucky, in the hopes they can stymie this epidemic. 

Safe Campuses

While some colleges, like Texas Tech., Baylor University, and Rutgers are stunning examples of schools that have addiction and recovery programs, Winnefeld says many do not. 

That’s why the SAFE Project is partnering with the Association of Recovery in Higher Education to combine resources and hopefully reach as many campuses as possible. Part of that is starting a leadership program for students in recovery. The first regional leadership summit will be in Washington, D.C. in October for colleges on the Atlantic coast. But it’s not just a weekend event, it’s an entire year where students can find support and focus their energy on a community service project. 

College students are particularly vulnerable to falling into addiction, says Winnefeld. 40 percent of students have some mental health concerns, according to the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors survey. With the rigors of academic life, many choose to self-medicate, he adds. 

Winnefeld stresses that Safe Campuses is not a treatment, but about recovery and creating an environment where students can thrive. The program is being rolled out, with one campus in particular showing promise, the University of Denver, Jonathan’s college. 

Losing a child is an unthinkable reality for most parents. Period. But in taking on this project, Winnefeld has a daily reminder of what happened to his family. 

“You know, we’re going to wake up in the morning with this background noise of sadness that we can’t do anything about anyway, so why not try to do some good while we are in this,” he says. 

“If we save one family from going through this hell then it would have been well worth the effort." 

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