Army civilian transforms lives after his own struggle with alcohol abuse
FORT KNOX, Ky. -- Frank Kreeger isn't himself anymore. The 55-year-old hasn't been himself for more than seven years now, and he couldn't be happier.
A Programs and Policy Branch program analyst at Fort Knox's U.S. Army Human Resources Command during any given workweek, Kreeger devotes countless hours outside of work to help others fight against the lure of alcohol and drug addiction.
He speaks quarterly to Soldiers, civilian employees and contractors around Fort Knox. He also helps out with small support groups on post. He speaks about the dangers of alcohol and drugs at meetings in the area. He visits jails and chairs recovery meetings. And somewhere in the midst of all this, he still finds time to sponsor new alcohol and drug addicts coming into the program.
Kreeger holds a sober view of addiction; he takes it personally when someone fails out of the system -- and they do. That's because for Kreeger, it is personal. He knows firsthand about the damaging effects of alcoholism. He viewed most of his life through a bottle -- until seven years ago.
"When I finally hit my personal bottom, the most important thing I did that I should have done a long time ago was ask for help," said Kreeger. "That's a big thing I encourage Soldiers to do is ask for help before you get in trouble."
Kreeger said a lot of addicts are intelligent people who get really good at solving their own problems as well as the problems of others, "so when we're faced with this problem ourselves, we think we can think our way, negotiate our way, out of it. That was my case.
"Every problem I had encountered in my life I found a solution to -- except this one," Kreeger said. "Alcohol had me beaten, so I had to surrender to it, to actually say, 'It's got me licked. I need help.'"
In 2011, the Department of Defense sponsored a DOD Health Related Behaviors Survey of Active Duty Military Personnel to determine the scope and effects of addiction among service members. Testers received responses through a web-based format from 39,877 men and women in all the military branches and the U.S. Coast Guard. The results revealed the respondents achieved five of the eight Healthy People 2020 objectives listed in the survey: obesity, healthy weight, exercise, and seatbelt and motorcycle helmet use. However, the three objectives that service members failed to meet were smokeless tobacco use, cigarette smoking and binge drinking.
According to the survey, about one-third of active duty service members admitted to binge drinking within the past 30 days. The number is 6 percent higher than the civilian equivalent. Of those surveyed, 84.5 percent admitted to being current drinkers.
Probably most telling, according to the survey, those "who were heavy drinkers, initiated alcohol use at earlier ages, or drank at work more often reported higher work-related productivity loss, serious consequences from drinking, and engagement in risk behaviors than personnel who reported lower levels of drinking, began drinking at older ages, or did not drink at work."
Kreeger said he's heard it all before: every reason, every excuse, every decision driven by the insatiable hunger to drink. He lived it.
"If I would have kept drinking, I would have been dead," said Kreeger. "I would have died of cirrhosis of the liver. My liver was at 28 percent. The doctor told me if I didn't quit I'd be dead in six months. I still couldn't. Until I asked for help.
"Even knowing my life was coming to an end, I still couldn't beat that mental obsession to take that drink."
The survey captured the most common reasons why so many service members drink alcohol: for a celebration, the pleasure of drinking, and a desire to be sociable.
"Towards the end, I didn't drink to feel good, I drank not to feel bad," Kreeger said. "That's when it gets really bad; when the drink doesn't make me happy, the drink keeps me out of pain. That's the last stop in addiction -- that's all I knew."
Desperation and a moment of clarity in front of a mirror drove Kreeger to seek help.
"I went to my chain of command, explained that I had an issue, which I didn't thoroughly understand at the time until I went into recovery," said Kreeger. "My leaders on post got me the help I needed. They saved my life."
He started with medical detoxification. After flushing out the physical effects of the alcohol, he then went through six weeks of rehabilitation to help rewire his thinking about the drug.
"Then I just continued to work on my sobriety every day," said Kreeger. "The way I work on my sobriety is to give it away. To keep sober every day, one day at a time, I gotta give it away; I gotta help the next person suffering -- get down in the hole with them and teach them the way to get out of this hole."
Kreeger said one of the hardest side effects of helping others is the realization that success doesn't always come.
"It's a tough thing to do because for everyone that I successfully help -- they get sober and clean up their life -- five or six just don't make it," Kreeger said. "I've buried a lot of people. They just couldn't get through it.
"You gotta be willing to help yourself," Kreeger said. "People go to rehab centers, meetings, support groups, but if they really don't want to get sober, it's not going to happen. They go for the wrong reasons. They go for their mother, or their kids, or to get the boss off their back, or get the police off their back … If they get sober for themselves, then all of a sudden the wife and kids won't leave you, you won't lose your job. Everything can work out. But you gotta ask for help because it's out there."
Kreeger said alcoholics in the grip of the disease will avoid seeking help out of embarrassment and fear.
"You're scared, you don't want anyone to find out how bad this thing's got you, so you try to hide it," said Kreeger. "You end up living a double life -- and that's miserable. You're going to pretend to have a good time, you're going to pretend it's fun, but deep down inside, you're killing yourself.
"I was killing myself and didn't know the way out.
"Probably the most tragic irony of alcoholism is, you get to the point to where the only thing that'll make you feel better is the poison that makes you sick in the first place. I had to look myself in the mirror and say, 'I gotta get help.'
"I got that help and it was a long road back. I would go to a recovery meeting every day for a year. And still, seven years in, I go to three meetings a week. I'll always be an alcoholic. I'm one mistake away from taking that first drink, so I have to constantly remind myself that I'm an alcoholic and to go to my meetings -- and help others to stay sober on a day-to-day basis."
One of those Kreeger has been helping is Matt.
Like Kreeger, Matt was a successful white-collar businessman working for 13 years at Fort Knox on a great life for him and his family. Also like Kreeger, Matt has been drinking since he was a young boy. His first recollections of drinking alcohol began in Germany when he was 8.
"I remember one time when I was 10, I went to a store and bought a big old bottle of apple wine and drank it by myself until I threw up," said Matt. "Then I went back to the store and bought some more. I thought it was normal."
Matt remembered seeing Kreeger around at work although he had never formally met him.
"I saw him in meetings and stuff. Then I got into some trouble due to my alcoholism and got admitted to the psych ward at Hardin Memorial," said Matt. "The day I got out, I went to Safe Harbor in Vine Grove. That's where I met Frank. He was running a meeting there. After the meeting, I approached him and told him, 'I want what you have.'"
Kreeger took Matt under his wing and mentored him through what Matt described as the hardest times of his life. One of those came when the state took Matt's children from him. He turned suicidal and turned to the bottle for courage.
"I was pretty serious about suicide. It wasn't one of those cries for help. It was a locking myself up in a closet," said Matt.
He found himself in a tub with an empty bottle of whiskey and cut marks. He decided it was time to admit himself into a hospital for help and sat there for eight days in a fog, trying to make sense of what alcohol had done to him.
"I lost my family over it. I lost my job. I had a nice pickup. I lost it. Lost my bike. Pretty much everything I had then is gone. I even have to do jail time over it," said Matt. "So I'm helping people in jail now. That was definitely not my character profile before I met Kreeger. He's really helped me flip my life around."
Josh has also been touched by Kreeger's desire to help others.
Josh's path was different from Matt and Kreeger's. He struggled with a lot of health issues that led him to seek out doctors and dentists who could prescribe medicine for the pain.
"I never set out to be an addict," said Josh. "As an addict, what I learned was that something beats nothing."
His downward spiral began to reveal itself in financial troubles and the loss of jobs and relationships. Then he started wrecking vehicles.
"There were a number of things that led me to that point where I had no place to go," said Josh. "My breaking point was my isolation. I was always one of those guys who was easily approachable. I found myself isolated more and more."
After hitting rock bottom by the end of 2015, Josh started his recovery in January 2016.
"The very first night I got out of recovery, I went to Safe Harbor Club. After the meeting, I approached Kreeger and asked him to be my temporary sponsor," said Josh. "I'll never forget what he told me -- 'We haven't buried a Josh yet. Don't make it the first.' He's been there for me ever since."
All three men now look for opportunities to encourage others.
Matt has decided to pursue a college degree. Josh is seeking every opportunity to help others. And Kreeger? He's written a book that began simply as a journal about his steps to recovery and has led to a bigger opportunity to help save lives and to encourage others.
"My life is unbelievable," said Kreeger. "The rewards of being sober are indescribable."
If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol or substance abuse, please visit the Army Public Health Center's resource page on alcohol and susbstance misuse at https://phc.amedd.army.mil/topics/healthyliving/asm/Pages/default.aspx.