They sit together in uniform on simple chairs in a hallway. One of the two men wears the two stars of a Navy rear admiral on his shoulder. The other wears an enlisted seaman's stripes on his sleeve.
Each has an improvised paper name tag over his right shirt pocket that bears only his first name.
There is no saluting, no calling the admiral "sir." In a few minutes, the admiral will get up to empty a nearby trash can while the enlisted man continues to sip a cup of some of the strongest coffee brewed in the Navy. The trash emptied, the admiral returns to the white, vinyl-upholstered chair next to the enlisted man and their conversation resumes.
The subject is alcoholism -- theirs.
This was a scene played last week at the special alcoholism treatment center at Long Beach Naval Hospital. The vignette occurred a day before Billy Carter, the president's brother, was admitted as a patient. Billy Carter became the latest in a continuing series of publicly known patients -- including former first lady Betty Ford and Sen. Herman Talmadge.
Helping people like Ford and Talmadge has made the alcoholism center nationally known. But the superficial publicity over these celebrity patients has ignored much of what the center is about and what that, in turn, says about problem drinking -- perhaps the most significant single social problem afflicting the armed forces.
Billy Carter's arrival was secretly in the planning stages for several days before the actually arrived, and the staff had a chance to prepare for the latest celebrity. Quickly assimilated into the unit, the president's brother acquired his own paper name tag and an assignment to one of eight therapy groups. In the closed room he would be immersed in the anonymity of being simply another patient.
Patients at costly civilian hospital alcoholism units might not recognize the Navy Center in Long Beach. Patients there live a spartan, unpampered life where even former first ladies and senators scrub toilets and empty trash cans.
New patients, said Capt. Joseph Pursch, who runs the program, usually arrive sober, though the hospital maintains a small detoxification unit for those who do not. Newcomers frequently prove to be habitual users of a variety fo drugs -- Pursch calls such patients "chemical gourmets" -- and the Long Beach center's philosophy requires that they be cut off from any use of drugs during treatment. sleeping pills and headache remedies are almost never given.
The common goal is to deserve to be called a "recovering alcoholic," the jargon term that is the preferred nomenclature. "Calling someone an 'exalcoholic' is like saying they're an 'exvirgin,'" Pursch said.
All reference to rank is abolished even though uniforms are worn, and new patients are arbitrarily assigned to sparse four-person rooms, complete with olive-drab Army blankets that give them the look of cubicles in basic training barracks. The strict military caste system is swept into abeyance.
Each patient draws a work assignment -- ranging from answerin g telephones to polishing faucets. And within hours of arrival, the routine of treatment begins.
Pursch's program centers on small therapy groups of seven to 10 patients each that are led by low-ranking enlisted men trained as counselors. All of them are former alcoholics treated at Purschhs facility several years ago. In the groups, the talk is usually frank, occasionally stormy and always focused on forcing patients to admit to their alcoholism and to grope for the reasons why they cannot control their drinking.
Group therapy takes three houss a day. Between morning and afternoon sessions, there is a daily group lecture on some aspects of alcoholism. In the afternoon, there is physical activity -- every patient must jog at leaste a mile a day.
There are role-playing exercises and psychodrama in the afternoon. Every evening the entire population of the unit puts on civilian clothes, boards a fleet of small vans and fans out into the Long Beach community to participate in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
The treatment regimen is laced heavily with AA because, though Pursch realizes AA is not always successful, its approach is the best found so far. "An alcoholic," he said, "should be exposed to AA just as the patient with pneumonia should be exposed to antibiotics."
Meals are taken in the hospital's public cafeteia. There is no food service in patient rooms.
New arrivals are confined to the hospital on weekends, but by the end of three weeks they are sent on weekend passes and encouraged to go to hard-drinking navy installations like the big headquarters base in San Diego or the EI Toro Marine Corps Air Station.
"When you get there, to EI Toro or San Diego, you won't believe how hard these people drink," Pursch warns new arrivals. It is meant as a test -- to see how well alcoholics in the middle of treatment can cope with a forceful challenge at an officer's club or enlisted men's bar. Few patients fail.
It goes on like this for six or eight weeks in most cases, though some severe problem drinkers are kept in Long Beach for as long as three months.
The program is cheap -- an estimate of its daily cost-per-patient a few years ago was less than $25 a day, though Pursch conceded many expenditures are hidden in the general budget of the regional medical center, the larger, 240-bed hospital of which the fourth-floor alcoholism unit is just one part.
In addition to Ford and Talmadge, the Long Beach facility's former patients include more than 200 of the 10,300 Navy aircraft pilots and 230 of 3,400 Navy doctors. Dozens of personnel with top-secret security clearances -- the most advanced kind -- also are among the patient alumni.
Even more startlingly, 90 percent of the alcoholic pilots, doctors and security personnel are back on duty -- doing the same jobs they held before they were ordered to the 83-bed unit, on pain of discharge, to cope with drinking problems long ignored both by themselves and by the Navy.
One day last week, for instance, one of the 65 patients under treatment was a full admiral -- the Navy's highest rank. Only seven men wearing those four stars are on active duty.
"All of these people are ordered here and that means we don't have any of the problems of a hospital in civie (civilian) land where patients can simply check out against their doctor's advice," explained Pursch, the vigorous and offbeat Navy physician who makes the program -- according to some of the nation's leading experts in alcoholism treatment -- one of the best such units anywhere.
"Every once in a while, an admiral will come in here to my office in a rage and tell me that he is not an alcoholic and that he demands to leave," Pursch said, smiling faintly.
"I look over at him and I remined him that his drinking problem is well documented. Then I ask him if he wants to be the first admiral in the history of the U.S. Navy to be charged with being AWOL (absent without official leave). That's usually about as far as it goes."
Since the Long Beach unit opened in 1970, more than 5,000 persons from all of the armed forces have been treated as well as two or three dozen famous civilians whose admissions must be personally approved by the secretary of the Navy.
Pursch will not identify any of the other celebrities, except to say they are people of wealth and power -- "doctors, lawyers, celebrities, war heroes" -- and that some, at least, have been top public officials.
More than 1,000 Navy physicians also have come to Long Beach to be trained in the techniques of recognizing and treating alcoholism. And, indicative of the extent of the problem throughout the Navy, Pursch said, 9.2 percent of the doctors coming to be trained have turned themselves in for treatment as alcoholics before the end of the two-week course.
Various federal government estimates hold that there are 55,000 alcoholics in the Navy as a whole, and that 20 percent of all Army officers and 32 percent of Army enlisted men are problem drinkers.
A native of Chicago, Pursch was raised in Yugoslavia where he became a World War II refugee when he was 14. As on adolescent he returned to Detroit in 1947 penniless and unable to speak the language of his native land.
He worked as a window-washer to learn English, scrimping and saving until he owned the window-washing business.
Though he lacked a high school diploma, Pursch persuaded admissions officials at Wayne State University in Detroit to let him work for a degree. Graduation from the Indiana University School of Medicine followed, with enlistment in the Navy soon after and assignment to the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal.
"I was older than my peers, so the other doctors would send me all the 'people cases,'" he recalled. "I found that much of my practice was in my stateroom at 3 in the morning talking to people who had problems," he said.
He switched from internal medicine to psychiatry and by 1970 was running a Navy alcoholism program in Naples, Italy.
That same year, former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Elmo Zumwalt decreed that alcoholism has to be recognized as a disease and not a disciplinary offense. The Long Reach center opened for business in an old Quonset hut within months.
Curiously, however, though Zumwalt ordered a new era of openness and tolerance in the navyhs approach to drinking, the original orders authorizing the Long Reach program beat the classified "SECRET" stamp, barring public acknowledgement of its existence. The two-page order had to be formally declassified before it could be added to trophy case in the entrance hallway in Pursch's unit.
On the same shelf of the trophy case there is another letter as well. It is from the White House, dated Feb. 7, 1975, and it commends the Long Reach center for "significant contributions... in the rehabilitation of those who suffer from alcoholism. "I extend my personal congratulations to all those who had a part in making it... so productive. In the years ahead, I hope (it) will remain an important showcase in the effective treatment of one of our country's most serious health problems.?
It is signed by Gerald R. Ford.
Part of Pursch's treatment involves bringing wives and husbands of as many patients as possible into group therapy. Admirals' and generals' aides often attend, as well, since they are married to their bosses in many senses.
And so it was that the former presdent strode off the elevator to sit in one of Pursch's cramped group therapy rooms with a name tag that just said "Jerry."
"I wonder if the (Ford) ever thought when he wrote that letter," Pursch mused, "that the day would come when he would walk in here and read it in a situation where this unit was called on to save his wife's life?"