During his four years as a Green Beret staff sergeant in Vietnam during the early 1960s, Tommy D. says he "invented little games like taking three (captured) Vietnamese up in a helicopter and dropping two out. The third will tell you everything you want to know."
Tommy D. was taken prisoner six times by the communists and spent a total of 13 months in their camps, but escaped each time. His father still has the letter from the Army saying his son had been killed in action.
While Tommy managed to keep his body intact, psychologically the man was falling apart. His drinking became obsessive and, after returning to this country in 1966, he "popped every kind of pill ever made."
But recently, Tommy D., who asked that his full name not be used, celebrated his 40th birthday with about 20 other graduates of a Veterans Administration-sponsored program that has succeeded in helping drug and alcohol addicts defeat their debilitating habits.
Now a lobbyist who works to get more Vietnam veterans elected to Congress, Tommy D. Claims the treatment program "was much rougher than any POW camp I ever saw because they made me work on myself."
The other successful graduates of the Veterans Administration Narcotic and Alcohol Treatment Association (VANATA) program echoed his assessment at the first reunion they have had since the program was started here in 1972.
Throughout the hour-long Alcoholics Anonymous-style meeting that preceded a buffet dinner and dance in the basement of All Souls Unitarian Church at 16th and Harvard streets NW, the reformed addicts recalled the difficulties of learning to accept responsibility for their actions while undergoing the VANATA treatment, but urged others in attendance to join the program.
Andrew L., one of the program founders, said the concepts used in the treatment were modeled after those used by the controversial Synanon drug treatment program in California.
But no one at the Saturday night reunion complained of the kind of militant tactics that came to be associated with Synanon. They just said VANATA worked for them.
An in-patient, therapeutic program is conducted at the VA Hospital on Irving Street NW and most participants stay in treatment there for about six months. They adhere to a strict schedule that runs from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day.
The patients "basically run the program themselves," Andrew said, providing their own housekeeping and conducting their own encounter groups. Judging from the comments at the reunion, mutual criticism is an integral part of the encounter group process. But anyone is free to "walk out the door at any time" he explained.
Toward the end of the program, patients receive vocational and educational training and, if possible, are placed in jobs before they leave.
While the success rate stands at only 42 percent, Andrew said the figure is "high for any drug rehabilitation program." Success rates normally run between 25 and 40 percent for such programs, he explained.
VANATA also is open to nonveterans, and is one of a handful of treatment plans that deal with both drug and alcohol addictions, he added.
For "Thelma," 33, the program appears to be the end of a long history of self-degradation. The only successful graduate among the few women VANATA patients, she started drinking in her native Columbus, Ga., at the age of 12.
"I was an alcoholic by the ninth grade, and I had resigned myself to stay that way," she said. "I didn't know any better. My father died an alcoholic, and I figured I would too."
She turned to prostitution at the age of 19 and made her living from it until she managed to join the Air Force as a supply clerk eight years later.
She began using hard drugs about a year afterward while stationed at Colorado Springs, and was given an honorable discharge a year and a half after that as a hardship case.
In 1978, after a brief, unsuccessful treatment program at the Psychiatric Institute here, she entered VANATA. The only woman patient at the time, "A lot of the guys resented it," she recalled. "I had my own room and my own bathroom, and they thought I was intruding in their program. But they finally realized my problems were just like theirs."
She has lapsed once since her treatment by getting high on marijuana, but she quickly realized smoking did not change anything.
She is now employed in a skilled position and is taking care of her two sons, who she has cared for most of their lives. They attended the Saturday night meeting with her, and only because of her 14-year-old son's request did she ask that her name not be used in connection with her history of prostitution.
"My boy still isn't used to my past," she explained.
Why did VANATA work for her, she was asked. She thought a minute before saying, "The streets had whipped the hell out of me and I just couldn't take it anymore. I found somewhere I could get some rest."