Standing before a packed hall of 700 military doctors and medics here, the deputy commander of the nation's elite special operations forces warned about an epidemic of chronic pain sweeping through the U.S. military after a decade of continuous war.
Be careful about handing out narcotic pain relievers, Lt. Gen. David Fridovich told the audience last month. "What we don't want is that next generation of veterans coming out with some bad habits."
What Fridovich didn't say was that he was talking as much about himself as anyone. For nearly five years, the Green Beret general quietly has been hooked on narcotics he has taken for chronic pain — a reflection of an addiction problem that is spreading across the military.
Hospitalizations and diagnoses for substance abuse doubled among members of U.S. forces in recent years. This week, nurses and case managers at Army wounded care units reported that one in three of their patients are addicted or dependent on drugs.
In going public about his drug dependency during interviews with USA TODAY, Fridovich, 59, echoes the findings of an Army surgeon general task force last year that said doctors too often rely on handing out addictive narcotics to quell pain.
An internal Army investigation report released Tuesday revealed that 25% to 35% of about 10,000 soldiers assigned to special units for the wounded, ill or injured are addicted to or dependent on drugs, according to their nurses and case managers. Doctors in those care units told investigators they need training in other ways to manage pain besides only using narcotics.
"I was amazed at how easy it was for me or almost anybody to have access and to get medication, without really an owner's manual," says Fridovich, deputy commander of the nation's roughly 60,000 Green Berets, Army Rangers, Navy SEALS and secretive Delta Force teams.
For such a high-ranking military officer, publicly acknowledging drug dependency was unprecedented.
Retired Army major general Paul Eaton, a former commander in Iraq, says Fridovich has now joined a small cadre of senior military leaders willing to discuss publicly personal struggles, such as living with post-traumatic stress disorder. Such admissions are difficult professional decisions, Eaton says.
"Nobody wants to show weaknesses. You want to be perceived as perfection," he says. "But sometimes moral courage kicks in where moral courage is demanded."
Fridovich agreed in recent weeks to talk openly about his reliance on drugs as part of what he says is a personal commitment to push the Army into better addressing pain management and drug addiction.
"Here's my story," he says. "I feel like there is some real value — maybe cathartic, don't know — but really, more than anything else, how can you help people?"
His own experiences are his bona fides on the issue, Fridovich says, and others agree.
"This is huge for Fridovich to be willing to talk about this as a three-star general," says Gen. Peter Chiarelli, Army four-star vice chief of staff. "We're finally coming clean and admitting at all levels this is an issue."
Fridovich says narcotics altered his personality, darkened his mood and management style and strained his 35-year marriage.
When Fridovich finally went through treatment and detoxification to reduce his drug reliance in 2008 — he still relies on weaker doses of narcotics to combat pain — his wife, Kathy, hid or destroyed more potent pain pills so he could not use them.