James Winnefeld Jr.’s Vow to Combat the Opioid Crisis

The retired admiral lost his son to the opioid crisis. His new nonprofit aims to help families struggling with addiction.

Kris Tripplaar / The Atlantic Festival

On Wednesday, retired Admiral James A. Winnefeld Jr. discussed with the senior Atlantic editor Ross Andersen one of the most painful experiences a parent can go through: losing a child. Winnefeld spoke about his son Jonathan’s overdose and death from fentanyl-laced heroin, which he wrote about in his article “No Family Is Safe From This Epidemic” in The Atlantic a year ago. The talk covered Jonathan’s experience with addiction and the nonprofit Stop the Addiction Fatality Epidemic (SAFE) that Winnefeld founded in the wake of Jonathan’s death.

“All of this effort will be worth it if we prevent one more family from experiencing this terrible loss,” said Winnefeld, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Winnefeld is a decorated veteran, having led combat operations in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom. When serving as the ninth vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs from 2011 to 2015, he was the second-highest ranking member of the military. Yet his son was caught up in the opioid crisis.

“I’ve found myself telling your story frequently,” Andersen said. “Because it is a powerful illustration of how this can happen to anybody’s family.”

When speaking to Andersen, Winnefeld described how Jonathan was a quiet, kind, and clever kid, who suffered from anxiety and depression. After a false diagnosis of attention deficit disorder, Jonathan began drinking to come down from the Adderall he had been prescribed, and later moved on to harder substances such as opioids. Winnefeld and his wife tried to get Jonathan into intensive outpatient treatment, but no centers had space. During his senior year of high school, Jonathan began to spiral downward. He tried, unsuccessfully, to take his own life.

“We realized, at that point, that we could not keep our son safe,” Winnefeld said.

After about five days of searching, Winnefeld found a treatment center to take Jonathan. And after 15 months of treatment, Jonathan began to return to whom he once was. “It takes that long for the brain to recover from the physiological, psychological changes that have taken place,” Winnefeld said. “We saw his ambition come back. We saw his zest for life.”

During his treatment, Jonathan received his emergency-medical-technician qualifications. In an admissions essay to the University of Denver, Jonathan wrote about a time when he had to administer CPR to someone undergoing a heroin overdose in a McDonald’s bathroom. Winnefeld shared how Jonathan wrote that “at that moment, he had decided he would dedicate his life to helping people who could not help themselves.”

Yet addiction is a powerful thing, Winnefeld explained. Three weeks later, Jonathan passed away, relapsing on heroin that had been laced with fentanyl.

“In the wake of his loss, we had a choice,” Winnefeld said. “We could crawl up into a ball of anger, shame, and grief, which we did plenty of times.” But his family also decided that “we would feel terrible if we did not stand up and try to help the rest of this large community of people who are trying to reverse this epidemic, if we didn’t try and do our part.”

So the Winnefelds started SAFE, which Andersen described as “amazingly comprehensive in its approach to the opioid epidemic.” SAFE combats the opioid crisis from six different angles. It works on public awareness and trying to lower the stigma of addiction. It also focuses on prevention in vulnerable populations such as high schools, and seeks to have doctors moderate their prescription of opioids.

The nonprofit also emphasizes law enforcement’s response to opioid addiction, trying to assure that addiction isn’t criminalized. SAFE considers medical response critical to fighting the crisis, and works to make sure every first responder is equipped with the lifesaving drug naloxone, which can reverse the symptoms of an overdose.

Winnefeld’s nonprofit also attempts to expand treatment, which he noted can be expensive and rare. Only 20 percent of Americans who need treatment today currently receive it.

Lastly, SAFE works on family outreach and support. SAFE’s website includes “lessons learned” from families all across the country that have suffered from addiction. It aims to share with communities what Winnefeld didn’t know when his son was suffering, such as the science of addiction and the science of treatment and recovery. “We just didn’t understand it,” Winnefeld explained.

“If I only knew then what I know now,” he said, “I would still have our son.”