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Safe Haven: It's OK to come forward, ask for help

To best represent the struggles that go along with substance abuse problems, Robins Public Affairs photographer Tommie Horton asked Angela Woolen, Rev-Up reporter, to model for the photo illustration used on the front page of the base newspaper. Although prescription drugs were used for the illustration, all substance abuse problems are serious, and help is available. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration by Tommie Horton)

To best represent the struggles that go along with substance abuse problems, Robins Public Affairs photographer Tommie Horton asked Angela Woolen, Rev-Up reporter, to model for the photo illustration used on the front page of the base newspaper. Although prescription drugs were used for the illustration, all substance abuse problems are serious, and help is available. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration by Tommie Horton)

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. -- The scars, no longer visible on the outside, took its toll on the inside. The addiction that gradually began to take hold of *E.C. began with diet pills as a way to lose weight, but slowly progressed with the use of meth and alcohol.  

"It pretty much took control of my life," said E.C., a long-time Robins employee. "I had to have it to get up in the morning, when I took a shower, just to get through the day. When I was using - it was all or nothing." 

When drug inspections were conducted on the flight line in early December, talk began to circulate at the office. Rumors. Gossip. Good old-fashioned, mean-spirited, back-and-forth banter. 

Words that reached her ears didn't just hurt - they exploded. 

If a person never had a substance abuse problem - be it alcohol, marijuana or amphetamines - how could they possibly empathize? And if they couldn't empathize how could anyone ever understand and accept?

It could've been me, she thought.
E.C. hid her addiction well. You would never imagine today the painful memories hidden beneath her eyes, shifting with hesitation as she opens up about her past. Years and years of dread. Insanity. Hopelessness. Depression. Thoughts of suicide. Paranoia. Desperation...

She'd usually spend $300 every two weeks on meth. Money that went inside her body, down the drain. Then there was cash for alcohol.

Last May she held in her hands some $600 worth of drugs she had just bought. She had been given a letter of reprimand at work for being late, and she'd been online that night looking at pictures of her family - the ones who had always supported her.                              

"I decided something had to change. There were men and women giving their lives for this country, and I couldn't even get to work on time," she recalled. 

So she flushed several hundred dollars' worth of meth down the toilet. 

She braced herself for the fall, gathered the courage to speak up, and came forward to her leadership. 

"I confessed (to being late).  I was guilty on all counts with an explanation," she said. "I had a drug and alcohol problem." 

E.C. knows how lucky she is today. No one is more grateful for her ongoing recovery, for her family, for her career than she is. But oh how easily things could've gone the other way. 

"I simply couldn't do it to my family or myself again," she said, carefully choosing her words. "You get to where you feel dead inside."

"It came to a point where I knew I had to do something. I just dug in even deeper," she said. 

E.C. explained that she'd heard about a program on base that essentially protects the jobs of workers who come forward about a drug use problem. She didn't know what it was called.

At Robins, there is a program available for employees who need assistance, not only to get clean, but to protect their careers.

Safe Haven
In 1986 President Ronald Reagan enacted Executive Order 12564 that illicit drug use in the federal workplace will not be tolerated. At the same time, the federal government sought to achieve drug-free workplaces with programs designed to offer users assistance. 

Standards and procedures were established by agencies, including creating drug testing programs for organizations.

The Safe Haven provision, part of Air Force Instruction 44-107, states that "disciplinary action for illicit drug use will not be initiated for any employee who meets all of four conditions," one of which includes "voluntarily identifying himself/herself as a user of illicit drugs prior to being notified of the requirement to provide a specimen for testing or being identified through other means," such as investigations. 

It's important to note that a civilian employee must come forward to a supervisor before they're discovered as a drug user, and before they're directed to report for drug testing - especially those employees employed in Testing Designated Positions. 

TDPs are subject to random drug testing if their job functions have a direct and immediate impact on public health and safety, the protection of life and property, law enforcement or U.S. national security. 

Random selection under the Drug Demand Reduction Program is made using Air Force Drug Testing Program software. Once the random selection process is complete, employees are notified and have two hours to comply at a facility on base and provide a urine sample.

The DDRP's goals are to enhance mission readiness and foster a drug-free environment through education, prevention, deterrence and community outreach. 

Among the six types of drug testing required under the DDRP are the random drug testing of employees who occupy a TDP - as well as the follow-up testing - where all employees referred for rehab for illicit drug use will be subject to the unannounced drug testing for at least one year. A supervisor may also ask any civilian employee to consent to provide a urine specimen for drug testing at any time under consent testing, which must be knowing and voluntary.

"If you get a letter one morning that says you must report for a sample, and come to us after the fact and explain you have been using illegal drugs, you don't meet Safe Haven requirements," said Kimberly Mlinaz, labor law attorney with the Judge Advocate's Office at Robins. "You have to tell before a management official has any reason to believe that you could have a drug problem."

An important distinction to make at this juncture is reasonable suspicion. For instance, if a supervisor suspects that an employee appears to be under the influence at work - to include such behaviors and symptoms as bloodshot eyes, smell of marijuana, slurred, slow speech, or erratic behavior - the employee can't claim Safe Haven at this point because suspicion has already been established.

Under the DDRP, reasonable suspicion testing is based on a specific belief that an employee has engaged in illicit drug use, and that evidence of illicit drug use is presently in the employee's body, and drawn from specific and particular facts, and reasonable inferences from those facts. 

Another example, if one day you are told to report to the DDRP on base for testing, you cannot claim Safe Haven because it will be too late since you have already received notification.

Bottom line, the employee must approach a management official first. 

"We are looking for people who are seeking out help and are ready to disclose that they're doing something that could harm themselves or others," said Mlinaz.

When an employee does make a disclosure, several things will happen. Once the employee self-identifies they have a drug problem, they will be referred for counseling, assessment and referral for treatment. 

For example, they will be referred for an initial screen meeting at the Mental Health Clinic's Alcohol Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment, or ADAPT, facility. Then the individual will move forward with plans for rehab off site, and they agree to be randomly tested for a period of one year.

In addition to self-identifying, conditions of Safe Haven include obtaining and cooperating with appropriate counseling or rehabilitation; agreeing to and signing a last chance or statement of agreement; and refraining from illicit drug use.            

When the employee meets all the requirements of the agreement and finishes a rehab program, they will not lose their job. 

Safe Haven offers a way for every civilian employee to get the help they need since safety of the workforce and quality of work supporting the warfighter is paramount at Robins.

One day at a time
With a strong faith guiding E.C., the old fear has slowly subsided. There is reason to hope again, and dream, the things all of us are called to do.  

She has longtime friends at Robins who are intimately familiar with her story. And then there are a few she hopes will still share the same regard for her. 

She's still the same person. Flawed, yes. Perfect, no. 

She's the same, but better, always striving to take what she has learned and help others who are living in the dark.

Words are hard to come by, but she is pushing ahead with a 12-step program, doing what she knows needs to be done. For E.C. admitting she had a problem and asking for help was the first step on the road to recovery. It not only saved her life, but her job. It's a lifetime commitment. You don't have to do it alone. There is help. If her story gives one person a glimmer of hope, it will all be worth it, she said. 

"Sometimes it takes a little pressure for someone to understand that you can't get away with what you've been doing, that your behavior is unacceptable," she said. "And sometimes it takes someone to hit rock bottom as a wake-up call in order to realize something has got to change."


WHAT TO KNOW:
Safe Haven is a provision under AFI 44-107 that states that disciplinary action for illicit drug use will not be initiated for any employee who meets all four of the following conditions: voluntarily identifies himself/herself as a user of illicit drugs prior to being notified of the requirement to provide a specimen for testing or being identified through other means - drug testing, investigation; obtains and cooperates with appropriate counseling or rehabilitation; agrees to, signs a last chance or statement of agreement (Firm Choice); and thereafter refrains from illicit drug use. This does not preclude disciplinary action for other misconduct, such as possession of drugs or drug paraphernalia.  *Employees who are using illicit drugs and wish to take advantage of the Safe Haven provision of the drug program should self-identify to their first-line supervisor or a management official in their chain of command.

ABOUT E.C.
E.C. is a real person who agreed to be interviewed for this article on the condition of anonymity. E.C. are not her real initials.