Ex-soldier returns to fight substance abuse in military
ASBURY PARK, N.J. — In the 10 years since Frank L. Greenagel Jr. was discharged from the Army he has taught English at the largest high school in America, started his own counseling center for drug abuse, chaired a task force to curb youth heroin and opiate use in New Jersey and run a recovery house at Rutgers University.
On the side, he worked toward a master’s degree in public policy and kept a brisk schedule of speaking engagements and meetings for the half-dozen associations on which he serves.
So donning Army fatigues again was one of the last things Greenagel thought he’d ever do, especially considering he is 38 — an “old man” by military standards — and describes himself as a reluctant soldier, not exactly gung-ho about military culture, taking orders or shining his boots.
But Greenagel says he is concerned about substance abuse in the military, particularly prescription drugs, and wants to guide soldiers through recovery and help shape military policy to address what he views as a “massive problem.”
On Oct. 24, Greenagel report for duty with the Pennsylvania National Guard, where he will serve as a behavioral health officer counseling soldiers with substance abuse problems and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Greenagel, who lives in Piscataway, was strongly influences to rejoin the military by one of his former student at Rutgers who served in the Middle East with the Marines, was wounded and prescribed painkillers. The student became addicted, was discharged under other than honorable conditions and fell deeper into addiction by using heroin. After getting clean, the student sought help from Greenagel, who placed him in the Rutgers Recovery House he managed.
That story, Greenagel said, is “horrible and all too common.”
Prescription drug abuse is higher in the military than among civilians and is rising, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy reported that illicit drug use, fueled by non-medical use of prescription drugs, increased from 5 percent in 2005 to 12 percent in 2008 among active duty service members.
The Department of Defense has a zero-tolerance drug policy, but Greenagel said local commanders have the final say on whether to discharge a service member who fails a drug test. A large part of Greenagel’s job, he said, will be to identify soldiers who are developing or have an abuse problem and not just help them into recovery but also help save their military careers by educating top leaders on addiction and abuse.
“The saddest cases are the ones where the soldiers were put on prescription drugs by the military and then it became a problem,” Greenagel said.
Greenagel first enlisted in the New Jersey National Guard in 1996 as an intelligence and training specialist. His unit was activated after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacksto guard the Hudson River crossings.
In 2002, the year he was discharged (he spent another two years in inactive reserves), a close friend who Greenagel spent several years trying to get clean overdosed and died on a combination of crack cocaine and alcohol. Greenagel then pursued his two passions: counseling and teaching.
He found his “dream job” teaching and running a recovery house for students at Rutgers. Meanwhile, prescription drug and heroin overdose deaths in New Jersey surged. In response, Gov. Chris Christie formed a task force, which Greenagel led. The task force issued a report on curbing the abuse that has helped guide the state’s efforts in the crisis.
Greenagel hopes to achieve something similar in the Army, where his rank will be first lieutenant.
“I’m not under any illusions that I can change military policy overall or Army policy overall, but I think I can cast a wider and wider net, kind of similar to what we’ve done here in New Jersey,” he said.
“The saddest cases are the ones where the soldiers were put on prescription drugs by the military and then it became a problem.”
Frank L. Greenagel Jr.
“On each soldier, we spend a lot of money training people, housing them, feeding them, equipping them. So even if you take out the human element, which I hate doing, and we just break it down to how much money we’re spending to recruit these men and women and to keep them, it makes a lot more sense to get someone mental health and addiction treatment.”
Ben Chin spent two years in the Rutgers recovery house after Greenagel took him in there in 2010. He had been in a youth correctional facility and addicted to drugs and alcohol. Chin has since won the prestigious Harry S. Truman Scholarship for college students who display leadership potential and is now on a fellowship with the Thailand Institute of Justice. Chin attributes much of his success to Greenagel.
“Working with veterans is important to him,” Chin said. “I believe he really feels he can make a significant contribution, not just locally, but maybe throughout the National Guard.”
Neha Mehta, 30, works as a research assistant at the university’s school of management. But while she lived in the Rutgers Recovery House under Greenagel, she said, “I didn’t really see much future.”
She said Greenagel helped her acclimate to the housing, pushed her to “branch out” and offered her and her parents advice for life after college.
“He’s really passionate about opening doors for people,” Mehta said. “He’s done that in my life, but I can see him doing that in other peoples’ lives.”