A talk given by Roger W. at the 18th National A.A. Archives
Workshop at King of Prussia, Pennsylvania (Oct. 9-12, 2014)
I have been an AA member for 31 years and a Soldier for 25. By God’s Grace, my AA experience has been rich in worldwide AA thanks to an employer who believes in the spirit of rotation. I have developed a deep appreciation for AA history and a deep respect for archivists, librarians, and those who preserve the artifacts that validate the story. AA spread out across America as members answered calls for help from hopeless alcoholics who somehow heard about AA through their doctor, clergy, friend, or press.
Through my own career and membership I’ve become interested in the military role in the story of AA growth. Looking at this one niche, the history of AA in the Military, I offer this presentation as one lens to view our history. AA history through a military lens and some military history through an AA lens so let’s look together through a new pair of goggles.
Let’s being with Benjamin Rush who pioneered alcoholism as an illness. He also served as a Continental Army Surgeon General in 1777 before writing about alcoholism as "-a disease process.” Maybe he had experience with drunken soldiers.
Fifty years later in 1832 Surgeon General Joseph Lovell abolished the Army whiskey ration he believed caused drunkards throughout the army. He reportedly said the “troublesome poison caused dysentery and should be banned."
The Army replaced whiskey ration with coffee and sugar rations – just like AA. His colleague, William Beaumont attributed numerous wounds and sprains among troops to alcohol abuse related to the whiskey ration. Ironically, the first Army hospital based alcoholism treatment center opened at William Beaumont Medical Center, Ft. Bliss, TX in 1981. Thirty years later, "the spirit ration in the Navy forever ceased." on September 1, 1862.
Yet alcoholism remained a problem. In an 1894 New York Times article Surgeon General George Miller Sternberg claimed several thousand days’ labor was lost to alcoholism, comprising a large percentage of soldier disability he suggested inebriate soldiers not be paid a full day’s wages.
The very next year alcoholism was declining, at least according to Secretary of War, Daniel Lamont. The Secretary cited a Surgeon General report that in the year 1800 over 17 army posts lost more than 10 percent of their strength to medical care for drunkenness and today only 4 army posts are in that category. We’ve come a long way baby.
World War I came and many who would become early AA members took their first drink. Bill W. freshly commissioned from Norwich Military Academy started drinking shortly before he shipped out. He later recalled the ominous warning he failed to heed.
Rowland Hazard served as a Captain in the Army Chemical Warfare Corps. Some suggest his drinking started causing him problems around this time.
Jim B. had a few alcoholic incidents in the military. Six days before the real Armistice, he celebrated with a few cognacs and was drunk and AWOL in Bar le Duc miles from base when the real Armistice occurred.
Fitz M. instrumental in early Washington AA where countless military members got sober tried to serve but was turned down for being underweight, he was eventually accepted and would have reported for duty on November 13, 1918, but the Armistice was signed on the 11th. As World War II broke out Fitz finally enlisted, but cancer was discovered during his physical and he died sober shortly afterwards.
Dr. Silkworth served in World War I on the psychiatric staff of the US. Army Hospital Plattsburgh, New York.
The 1930’s end with the Big Book published, and AA spreading outside New York and Ohio to faraway places like Chicago, New Orleans, Texas, Arizona, and Nebraska. The famous Rockefeller dinner in February 1940 began the next decade of AA history.
On December 7, 1941 the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered the most widespread war in history. America was in a state of total war, throwing her entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the effort. There was no difference really between civilian and military resources.
General Service Headquarters estimated 300 AA members served during World War II. Some served in action overseas, others stateside. The full commitment of people and resources was profound. AA asked for and was granted additional gas rations for 12th step work. Bill W. sought to return to uniformed service, and offered to help the draft board accept those in recovery.
Among those that did serve are significant AA historical figures including Clarence S. and Roy Y.
Clarence attended basic training and officer candidate school at Fort Knox, KY attending the first AA group in Louisville and assisting the group with some new cases they brought down to Knox during his limited free time. Ultimately he was not activated and returned to civilian life in Cleveland. That he was compelled to serve at 40 years old is a testimony to his patriotism and an entire generation of Americans.
Roy Y. sobered up in Houston in 1940 and joined the Army during the war. He remained active and founded AA in Tampa and St. Petersburg while stationed at nearby Drew Field, an airbase that’s now Tampa International Airport.
The Cleveland Central Bulletin began in part to provide news of the groups back home to those serving in the war. Editors asked group secretaries to keep addresses updated so they stay connected to servicemen. The U.S. Censorship office sent a “kind but authoritative” letter to the Cleveland Central Bulletin asking them to stop publishing names and addresses of members because it violated the Code of Wartime Practices. They did and expressed regret that their desire to connect readers with those serving unwittingly endangered their lives.
The AA Grapevine likewise began with a goal of sharing news from home with the boys overseas. The first issue of Grapevine said, “when the idea was first conceived, one of the first thoughts was that it might be helpful to those in the service, thus Mail Call of A.A.s in the Armed Forces ran from the first edition through the end of World War II when it changed to Mail Call for A.A.s at Home and Abroad.”
The AA Pledge printed in “AA Scrapbook 1939-1942” included a handwritten note attributing the source as the Windermere Group, Cleveland, February 6, 1942. A news article in Grand Rapids, Michigan claimed the pledge was sent from the AA national foundation. The GSO Archives team found no such evidence. Perhaps the Cleveland group sent it to the Michigan group. The pledge does indicate national patriotism and American support for the war. Of course, all AA members were in the United States at the time.
In June 1943, The Cleveland Central Bulletin “News from the Camps” reflected our deepest sympathy to the relatives and friends of our first known AA casualty. Lt. J. Paul H. United States Army Air Forces. He was a member of Kings School Group of Akron, Ohio and practiced law in Kent, Ohio before entering service.
The Grapevine is rich in historical stories; an AA’s account of the D-Day invasion; a Women Army Corp (WAC) shared about her transformation in AA from wasteful life to life of service to AA and country; and the first transatlantic phone call to AA HQ from an Army doctor in Germany seeking to help an alcoholic patient on January 29, 1947.
In February 1945 a paper shortage in support of the war effort resulted in the “Wartime Edition” of the Big Book. The 1st Edition - 8th Printing was on paper with thickness reduced by 1/2, width by 1/16, and height by 1 inch.
In 1945 the Wilson Club Branch of AA in St. Louis reported an “offspring” group - The Jefferson Barracks Group at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks, Missouri; believed to be the first AA group formed on a military installation. In October 1946 a similar group started at Fort Jay, Governors Island, NY for prisoners incarcerated for drinking incidents. In 1946 AA’s in San Francisco started a group at the U.S. Army Letterman General Hospital.
AA developed in West Germany after World War II as a direct result of Servicemen. In 1948, groups were registered at GSH in Bremen, Frankfurt Central Chapel Headquarters, and Munich.
By the end of the decade nearly 150 groups had began to help alcoholics in other countries and US possessions – many started by armed forces members in need of another alcoholic to carry the message to stay sober themselves.
The 1950’s included many military members working with others sparking AA growth and contributing to the story. One incredible story of a man whose experience intersected many well known AA characters was told in the autobiography of Sgt Bill S. His co-author Glenn Chesnut could not travel to the workshop but sends his best and tells this part of the story by video.
An AA meeting can be held anywhere. In 1951 five men held meetings while on a secret mission building what is today Thule Air Base 950 miles from the North Pole. In 1958 the “Dolphin Group” reported the first known underwater AA meeting held on a submarine.
Loner’s stories contain some of the most powerful demonstrations of willingness to go to any length. Their efforts directly contributed to the growth of AA worldwide.
A common theme that emerged from this research for me was the extraordinary efforts of service men and women to find and help another alcoholic to maintain their own sobriety.
Their efforts with the professional community – commanders, chaplains, doctors;
The public – newspapers and fellow service members in some of the most remote and austere environments serves as an example of the spirit of Alcoholics Anonymous that demands we capture and tell this historical story.
They also helped by delivering literature to countries with regulations against postal shipments. By the end of 1954 there were 100 registered Loners with the “Seaman’s Correspondence Group”.
AA growth in the Pacific has military roots. An early letter (October 1943) to General Service Headquarters asking for help came from Naval Cantonment, Honolulu. By 1953 there were four groups – one a serviceman’s group with plans for a group at Pearl Harbor and Schofield Barracks. In May 1958 an AA speaker from Waikiki, invited by the Chaplain, addressed a group of 1,500 Soldiers at Schofield Barracks.
In May 1952 the Tokyo Group reported many service members in the group but most on their way out by the time they found AA. In 1953 they started a newsletter and maintained contact with visiting AA’s on R&R from Korea or passing through. Word spread of their location and the Tokyo Group helped visitors and AA’s throughout Japan.
By 1958 the Okinawa Group reported they were growing and “coming of age” just as the title of the new AA book suggested. In 1953 with help from Tokyo and Okinawa AA’s, a group started at Iwakuni, Japan - a U.S. Marine Air Station 550 miles from Tokyo. By 1958 this group of six Americans requested GSHQ approve their translation of the Preamble and 12 Steps into Japanese to help their two Japanese members and those to come. In October 1954 Jack E. reported a solid AA group in Guam with 14 members, mostly military personnel.
United States participation in a divided Korea saw AA members again needing to find another alcoholic and thus AA in Korea has grown to the 32 meetings, an answering service and central office today.
The first evidence of AA came in November 1950 a member wrote to Grapevine from South Korea grateful for the October issue and his homegroup near Ft. Carson, CO. Contact comforted him while sleeping in a foxhole in Korea. Another letter came in 1951 from a “grass hut in Korea”.
By November 1952 Ann M. (Foreign Group Secretary at GSH) was corresponding with eight Loners in Korea when a letter came announcing an AA group in Yong Dong Po. GSH put the group in touch with the Loners on the peninsula that had no knowledge of each other. Ann also found four other members with Grapevine subscriptions that had no knowledge of the others.
Within a few months time, the AA membership in Korea numbered 15 who had contact with each other through the Grace of God and U.S. Mail.
Because the military also believes in the spirit of rotation, especially in overseas deployments, by 1953 only one of these 15 remained, but that spark never went out. As lone AA members deployed to Korea, those who asked GSH for help were connected because the secretary knew something about Korea that the Generals didn’t – the location of other AA’s.
In Europe, the groups in Germany held the first Wiesbaden Roundup in 1952. In 1953 AA membership in Germany consisted of Armed Forces members and those on military bases. With three known AA groups, Master Sergeant Bob S. invited Americans and Germans in both languages to an open AA meeting at the Hotel Leopold in Munich on November 1, 1953. Ten German’s came. Max, a German working for the American military at McGraw Kaserne, sobered up and became very active carrying the message in German.
By 1954 Germany reported 20 groups, mostly comprised of military personnel. Max started the first German Speaking group in Munich. The Germany groups established the “Frankfurt Intergroup” and a 24 hour helpline.
Paris AA was started by service members working with NATO forces who met in the American Church. When bi-lingual Frenchmen got sober, the message was carried to French Speaking alcoholics.
A spirit of cooperation began in Europe as AA groups in Germany, France, and Austria all started by Armed Forces members began visiting each other, sharing experience, strength, and hope.
By 1960, outside the U.S., there were about 16,000 AA members in 1,000 groups in 90 countries.
The Grapevine headline captured the theme “All over the globe, AA takes root, struggles, then thrives”.
Another amusing Grapevine quote given present company, “Precisely how it happened – the exact dates, places, and names – will of course probably wait for some compulsive non-AA researcher obsessed with footnotes and other such documenting. Poor guy, it’ll probably drive him to drink.”
The Grapevine captured military loner stories like the Sailor who celebrated his 5th AA birthday in Newport, RI after spending his first four anniversaries at sea. In 1966 a loner shared about using “the hot line” – Defense Switched Network lines to reach members around the world. In 1967 Private Pat W. looked forward to meetings in Baltimore following two months with no AA contact at Women Army Corps basic training.
In March 1964 the Canadian Navy ship Bonaventure came out of dry dock with a new crew including four AA members who started the 22/24 Group named for the ships number (22) and 24 hours a day. The group grew to 12 members at one point. During their tour they attended meetings in the U.S., Trinidad, Brazil, Argentina, England, Ireland, Sweden, Germany, and Puerto Rico. After two years the ship was refit and the group disbanded.
The first AA group met at Ramstien Air Base in 1962. The Wiesbaden Roundup celebrated its 10th anniversary in 1963 inviting Bill W to speak. Bill declined due to the numbers of worldwide invitations. The roundup committee received letters in Irish, French, Flemish, Swedish, German, and Swiss demonstrating the message breaking language barriers.
In the Pacific, by 1967 the Tokyo Group had 9 meetings a week and held the first known roundup in the Far East featuring speakers in English and Japanese. In 1968 Okinawa reported 21 members.
Two GI’s in Taiwan started a group in 1960 called “Gom Bay” - Chinese for empty glass. They used ham radio to contact AA’s back home. The group dissolved when they left, but in 1966 another took shape. Mike an airline pilot working the Vietnam R&R program sought AA contacts from the International Directory and found none were still there so he got drunk. He hit bottom, heard a radio announcement about plans for the Taipei Group and attended that first meeting December 12, 1966 (12-12-66) where he met two others desperate to stay sober who were connected by the military chaplain.
In April 1966 the Singapore Group had four members. Aided by the British Military Hospital and a large public meeting the group grew to reach the local population.
Vietnam tested AA principles in the 1960’s. The first Grapevine article from Vietnam appeared in May 1966. T.C.F. wrote, “I was a perpetual private” sharing how while in jail he related to two outside AA speakers, both in the military. Reduced to private several more times for drinking, his commander had heard of AA and offered him one last chance, which he seized. At the time of the article he was sober 4 years and serving in Vietnam with military career and family restored. His sponsor’s words sustained him in combat.
In 1968 a group near Corpus Christi Naval Air Station recorded a meeting for a member in Vietnam. In July 1969 an 18 year old soldier wrote New York from Vietnam concerned about his drinking, asking if he could join AA.
In December 1969, the author of The Perpetual Private wrote from Quan Loi on his second tour in Vietnam relating it to his second time around in AA, second time around as an AA Loner and that AA gave him a second time around at life itself.
In Bermuda AA grew at what was Kindley Air Field. In Inuvik, Northwest Territory an AA Loner stayed sober at a remote Canadian Navy station through mail, church, and 12th step efforts.
Dr. Travis Dancey was elected the first Canadian non-alcoholic trustee to the General Service Board in January 1965. His experience with alcoholism began as a Psychiatrist in the Canadian Army and at Queen Mary Veteran’s Hospital in Montreal.
On the U.S. side, the Board gained non-alcoholic talent from the military when a former World War II Army Finance officer, Robert W.P. Morse was elected treasurer in 1967.
In Dhahran, Saudi Arabia an AA loner contacted GSO who had two USAF AA contacts. Together, they found two prospects, but the oil company refused to allow meetings for fear it might offend the Arabian government and Air Force leaders said no government building could be used. So, the alcoholics had “bootleg meetings” in their rooms until the AF guys rotated home. AA later took root and by Operation Desert Storm, the International Directory listed nine groups.
Military alcoholism treatment began developing in the 1960’s. In 1962 Army Dr. Ron Cantanzaro began a program which included 3 AA meetings a week but like Sgt Bill at Lackland, it did not last long after his departure. In 1969 the groundwork was laid for a halfway house model for treating alcoholism at Fort Benning. Benning House helped establish the modern Army substance abuse program.
An Air Force program began in 1967 at Wright Patterson AFB and expanded in 1969 to units at Andrews, Eglin, Sheppard, March, and Scott Air Force Bases. AA meetings were part of aftercare.
In 1965, retired Navy Commander Dick J. proposed weekly AA meetings to Captain Joe Zuska. The first Long Beach Naval AA meeting was on February 15, 1965. Captain Zuska related, not all went well at the first meeting:
"It took place with one alcoholic sailor, Dick J., two recovering alcoholics from the community, and a practicing alcoholic Executive Officer who dropped in out of curiosity and brought his two German police dogs. The picture of that first meeting is still vivid, Dick and his friends attempting to read from the Big Book, the intoxicated XO trying to direct the meeting, two huge dogs pacing rapidly about the room, and a bewildered sailor wondering what he had gotten himself into."
Meetings grew and Captain Zuska requested a small Quonset hut for classes. It was here in August 1967 that the famous Long Beach treatment program began.
In March, 1969, Dick J. was asked to help a senior naval officer. AA’s met at a private office to protect the officer’s anonymity. On March 23, 1969 seven men and a shaky Captain John W. held the first meeting of the Icebreakers Group, which became an underground military professional meeting until they listed it in local directories.
By 1970 Soldiers and Sailors could find AA in 92 countries while some Loner’s relied on mail.
In March 1972 Dr. Jack Norris Non-Alcoholic Chair of General Service Board visited England, Germany, Spain, and Greece to help US military leaders with their efforts to combat alcoholism. Praising AA, he said, “people recovered and were reinstated that would have been demoted or discharged previously”.
A recovering alcoholic priest, Father Martin presented “Chalk Talk” sometime in the 1960’s. In 1972, the U.S. Navy filmed the talk launching Father Martin as a renowned alcoholism expert.
In 1972 the first known AA meeting occurred on a nuclear powered Navy ship the USS Bainbridge.
In 1974 SHAPE Group at the Belgium NATO headquarters was started by Mike (UK) and Bill (US) who blended British and American AA registering the group with both GSO York and GSO New York. It still meets consistently 40 years later.
The Loner’s Meeting merged with the Internationalist to create Loner’s Internationalist Meeting (LIM) in 1976.
The story of AA in the military cannot be told without talking about Senator Harold Hughes. Details of his legislative efforts are captured in Nancy Olson’s book. His success regarding military legislation was aided by the anonymous testimony of military AA’s ultimately requiring services to treat alcoholics in uniform. Testimony came from Hal M. - known in DC as Mr. Gratitude an AF officer who served 24 years before forced retirement; Jim S. an Army Master Sergeant pressured to retire at 20 years because of alcoholism; and of course Captain Jim B. the Navy captain with the gold braid.
The Navy preferred he not testify in uniform, but he did anyway. The press, forbidden to photograph faces ran a shot of his hands on the evening news that included the gold braid on his sleeve. The brass was furious but they got over it. Also Dr’s Segal and Adelman from Benning House, Dr. Zuska from Long Beach, and Dr. Scibatta from the Air Force program testified. Senator Hughes was instrumental in helping these pilot programs in each service gain funding, attention, and success.
Publication of the pamphlet, “AA and the Armed Services” in 1974 culminated perhaps the longest literature discussion ever which began in the 50’s. Directing the piece toward military leaders was considered but ultimately it was written to military member with personal stories of recovery in uniform. The 1971 General Service Conference Literature committee recommended that:
- the "AA and the Armed Services" pamphlet in preparation is directed toward the alcoholic in the armed services rather than the higher echelon. The long awaited pamphlet with ten personal stories, nine men and one woman of various age and rank came out in April 74.
The sales figures of the pamphlet over time are interesting. It is believed that the Navy purchased a bulk order in 1976 accounting for the surge. The trend toward fewer sales in the mid 1990’s fascinates me.
How many would believe me if I told you that the AA Grapevine once included a classified ad? You decide if that is an accurate characterization of this article from the November 1971 Grapevine.
The article seeks someone to serve in the Bureau of Naval Personnel alcoholism program. A follow up in June 1972 reported many calls and letters were received and those who responded will educate the Navy on the AA view of alcoholism. The article or ad welcomes more contacts from experienced AA members (with 2 years or more continuous sobriety) on active duty or retired, any rank or rate.
By the 1980s, sober young people joined the military able to serve a full career. But certainly for me the most moving story regarding AA in the military of the decade was captured in the AA Grapevine in April 1984 and The Best of the Grapevine in 1985.
At the end of May 1983, a letter requesting literature arrived at GSO from a U.S. Marine (J.O.) stationed with the International Peacekeeping Force in Beirut, Lebanon. At about the same time, two non-alcoholics were helping an American AA in Beirut trying to start a group.
GSO staff members put them in touch with the Marine. Through radio, TV, and newspaper they announced AA. The first newspaper article concluded: "As Lebanon is striving to gain sovereignty and recover from war, we know there are countless individuals who have had wars within themselves. Countries all over the world have Alcoholics Anonymous, and now so does Lebanon."
The marine corresponded with GSO staff members regularly and kept them up to date on the group.
On 21 June 1983 J.O. thanked GSO for the letter and pamphlets.
He reported two devoted AAs and one possible. They had no set schedule for meetings but got together when they could make the time. GSO provided him a Loner contact and he planned to correspond with them by cassette.
J.O. had a Big Book, "Twelve and Twelve," As Bill Sees It, Living Sober, and Came to Believe. GSO sent other literature. The marine had a year sober and was a member of a group in North Carolina on a six month deployment to Beirut.
On 7 July, 1983 J.O. wrote praising GSO staff as “some of the kindest people I've had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with.” He shared about working with a new man and although still writing his inventory and that “It would be a mistake to let the man slide deeper into a miserable world”.
On 20 July, 1983 J.O. wrote that the group was named the Peacekeeping AA Group and met every Sunday at 4:30 PM with eight members.
On 25 July, 1983 J.O. reported the group had a permanent location at the Peacekeeping Chapel in the Battalion Landing Team Marine Headquarters.
“No wonder we call our group the Peacekeeping Group. We are all marines, with the exception of two ladies who drive over from the far side of Beirut when they feel it is safe to come here. I'm sure you've heard how dangerous this airport is. We were shelled on Friday.”
On 2 September 1983 J.O. wrote, “Thank you for the much-needed literature you have so generously supplied for us”. The group met whenever circumstances permitted, “You understand it is very difficult to attend meetings and fight a war at the same time, but we are struggling on”. He was “very grateful” and thanked them for letters and sobriety tools.”
Signed, Gratitude from Beirut J---- O---- and the Peacekeeping Group
On 21 September, 1983 J.O. wrote,
“I'm sorry I haven't written back sooner, but we have been very busy doing other things, like trying to stay alive.” He reported meeting as often as possible (two or three a week) with about four members with others having difficulty getting to Headquarters from the front lines.
“Two civilians from Beirut were very much the beginners of our group as we know it. They have been at our meetings often and even during a bombing attack one Sunday afternoon. (Since then, they have not returned.) I haven't contacted those two girls for weeks because of the extremely dangerous situation we've been in. I will try to contact one of them again real soon.
We are very grateful for the chance to begin our AA group here, and we thank you for your extra help in this project. We hope that when we leave in November our following marines and sailors will continue the group. Though they will be a new bunch of servicemen, we think it's possible there may be an alcoholic in the bunch who'll continue the Peacekeeping Group.
God bless and goodwill to you good folks in New York.
Sincerely yours, J---- O----, Peacekeeping Group”
On Sunday, October 23, 1983, the Battalion Landing Team headquarters building in the marine compound at Beirut International Airport was destroyed by a bomb, taking the lives of 241 U. S. military personnel.
On December 6, 1983 GSO received a letter from the Lebanese student.
Thank you very much for your thoughtful letter of October 27. I received it one month late due to the situation here and to the fact that the airport is closed. I am sending you this letter through the American Embassy.
As for the marines, the young man who was in touch with you was killed by the explosion. The others have left, and a new company was brought in. All of the AA literature was lost, because we used to meet in the library, located in the basement of the same building that was blown up.
I want very much to be able to start AA again for the men in the new company, but at the moment, this is impossible. The base is located right next to the airport, and there is a lot of shelling and fighting in that area. Also, it would be very difficult for me to get on base, because new precaution measures have been taken since the explosion. I hope that things will change soon. Keep them in your prayers. Also pray for the AA group in Beirut.
Best regards from the AA members here, and they all thank you for your concern.
Sincerely, S---- M----
I don’t know when an AA group was re-established in Lebanon but today AA is available on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.
The 1990’s begin the part of the story for which I can share personal experience having joined the Army in 1989. Shortly after I joined we found ourselves deploying to Desert Shield Desert Storm. After failed efforts to find another alcoholic, yours truly wrote the first letter published by Grapevine from that conflict. I experienced firsthand the love and vital message of LIM and the kind help from our General Service Office. I photocopied pages of the International Directory and wrote them to tell them where I was going, afraid of going off to war and hoping for a possible letter or two.
What I got was nothing short of an absolute miracle. Just when I needed AA the most, when I was the loneliest, afraid, and isolated – unable to find another alcoholic – it happened. GSO put me on a mailing list and letters began to flow. I received a few letters and cards from friends I’d never met. The volume grew to daily letters, speaker tapes, cards signed by groups, longer letters, and more mail! In one day I got 32 pieces of mail from all around the United States addressed to me from members of AA that I had never met, but who took time to let me know I was loved. I stayed sober on mail. Today I have 150 names and addresses of those who cared enough, I have met several of them, and I will be forever grateful. Dozens of AA members in Desert Storm shared the same experience.
The AA military story continued overseas. The Continental European Region which grew from groups on military bases evolved and was accepted into the autonomous General Service structure of Great Britain in 1988 and the relationship grew in the 1990’s with full participation and delegate representation at their Conference.
Navy AA’s found groups in foreign ports all over while in the states AA continued to meet in trailers, old barracks, and repurposed rooms everywhere.
In 1997 I wrote an article the Grapevine staff titled “Grow or Go” about my story of joining the military as a young person. This time it was Roger W. from Honolulu, HI where I was stationed. I can honestly say I have never been published in the Grapevine from the same location twice. Over time, I realized that I was not that unique and that sobriety made a successful military career very possible.
Several overseas military bases were closed in the 1990’s and established AA groups went with them or struggled along with a few members. When places like Subic Bay and Clark Airbase in the Philippines closed as the largest base outside the U.S. or when many bases closed in Germany, the chances of being a military AA loner increased as well.
Those finding themselves alone and sober used the same formula for finding another alcoholic AA has always used; hospitals, brigs, chaplains, and the press. Despite the shrinking force of the 1990s, AA could be found in the most remote places. From the pages of Grapevine we learned that a sailor found a meeting in Kenya in 1996 while another was thrilled just to find a friend of Bill in Thule, Greenland in 1997.
On September 11, 2001 our world changed forever. Again many AA members served sober in Iraq and Afghanistan. The downsizing trend reversed and we had to grow our forces to fight terrorism.
As AA’s deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, just like in World War II, they stayed sober as well as those back home. When I deployed to Afghanistan in 2009 it was substantially different than Desert Storm. This time AA was available through new technology like email, Skype, Online meetings, and stable voice communication with those back home. The message was immediate and gratifying. Letter mail was replaced with email – fast, easy, unlimited contact with AA.
Many in OIF and OEF were able to attend meetings; others were not for the danger of moving around the battlefield. The technology was an incredible blessing and has changed the dynamic of being a loner as well as finding AA when travelling. Looking in the phone book has been replaced by checking the internet and now your phone or tablet from nearly anywhere at any time.
The face to face meeting I did attend was incredible. I, four government contractors and a Navy Chaplain were at Camp Eggers that day. I deliberately chose that day to travel there for business that could have been done safer and just as well by phone and email – but I needed a meeting. I could hardly read the 12 Steps they asked me to without choking up with tears of gratitude. It was very special and was my only face to face meeting in theater.
The AA Grapevine had a special edition in May 2005 – a throwback to the Mail Call for All AA’s in Uniform paying special tribute to AA members serving at the peak of the war.
In the early part of the decade, the UK formed a Trustee led subcommittee to help carry message better to British Forces. While stationed in Europe I was honored to serve as secretary of that committee. We worked on updating their AA and the Armed Services pamphlet. There version had not a single story of a military member who was sober during military service. Every story was that of a veteran who found AA after being forced out for drinking. It was quite a challenge to find military in recovery and leaders seemed years behind the U.S. in accepting alcoholism as a treatable illness. Service members had difficulty believing one could serve in a work hard play hard military and not drink. The work directly with commanders and professionals to share the gift of AA was incredible. Many were receptive to the CPC like work and eager to help those who suffered within Her Majesties Royal Forces.
Here in America the AA and Armed Services Pamphlet was again updated with more relevant stories to help reach those with recent military experience. I was directly part of that process literally from beginning to end. It was very exciting. Inspired by the 4th Edition Big Book I began asking why this literature piece was so dated with Vietnam era stories that most guys I worked considered another generation. I suggested to our group we submit an agenda item and it was unanimously accepted by the group, district, area, and ultimately GSC Agenda committee, then approved by the conference and updated. I was excited to participate and watch the idea grow. Also after much encouragement I submitted my story which was accepted. Finally, the icing on the cake was when GSO asked me to proof the final product as a military consultant to make sure terms and content flowed and reflected an understanding of the military lifestyle.
So far in this decade AA’s gratitude for the military has been expressed in many ways. At the International Convention in San Antonio a panel topic meeting was held called “AA in the Military” a great meeting attended by a full house. Myself (Army), Steve C. (Navy from California), and Travis (USAF) made the panel, but the best part of the meeting for me was those who came to the Mike afterwards – family members, USO volunteers, other service members, and the one Navy Chaplain who remembered me in Afghanistan at that one very special meeting. They all reflected this chapter of the story - AA in the Military.
AA and Armed Services pamphlet was updated again in 2012. Frankly, it needed it. In part due to lack of submitted stories, the 2003 version fell short. The current version, I believe is a really great, diverse cross section of AA experiences. My story was retained and re-titled but I am sure someday, it will need replaced by more current and relevant stories that touch those who still suffer.
And recently, AA in the Military was a topic at ICYPAA 2014 in San Antonio. This seems an appropriate place to end coming full circle, from beginning to end young people blessed with sobriety have served in the military or in the society for which it serves because of AA.
You see it was one of AA’s first young people’s groups in Cleveland in 1945 who expressed that within their primary purpose the desired “to form a nucleus of a fellowship to attract the returning soldier with an alcoholic problem”. They felt that their youth could probably be more convincing to these veterans.
So, ever since men and women returned from World War II, we in AA have sought to help young people find help and hope. Based on the historical evidence, I think there has been much success in that area. God Bless America and God Bless Alcoholics Anonymous!