At first glance, the reunion in the Northeast union hall looked like any other as the alumni dined, danced, distributed awards and filled each other in on a year's worth of accomplishments. But the memories they shared were not of glory days and good times. For these graduates, the good times were now and the past was remembered as a time of desperation, dejection and drugs.
The occasion was the seventh annual reunion for graduates of the Veterans Administration Narcotics Alcohol Treatment Association, a residential treatment program for substance abusers that is operated by the VA Hospital here. Since 1973, VANATA, as the program is called, has used a comprehensive, six-month approach to free veterans of their chemical addictions, and in many cases save their lives.
"I know that if I had not found this program I would not be alive because I had resigned myself to the fact that I was going to die doing drugs," said Barbara Noona, a 1984 graduate of VANATA and a Vietnam War veteran. "Now, at the ripe old age of 44, I'm just starting to live."
According to Dr. Peter Devlin, assistant director of VANATA, a recent in-house study placed the program's success rate at 50 percent, about 15 to 20 percent higher than rates for similar programs. About 1,300 veterans have gone through VANATA, he said.
"It's a new experience for me to be sober," said Roger Leonard, brother of boxing champion Sugar Ray Leonard and who was also a boxer when he was in the Air Force. "Before my mind was so fogged, I couldn't enjoy anything."
Sunday night's reunion was particularly meaningful because the program is being cut back from six months to one month. VANATA graduates and staff said the change will dramatically diminish the program's effectiveness.
"They take more time and money teaching you how to kill than teaching you how to live," Noona said.
Donna St. John, a spokeswoman for the Veterans Administration, said the cut in VANATA was part of a nationwide policy recommended in September by the VA's Mental Health and Behavioral Science Service and approved by the chief medical director, Dr. John Ditzler.
St. John said the policy was adopted not to save money, but "because we have found that in-patient stays of longer than one month don't improve patient outcome."
Under the policy, those veterans who still need treatment after one month at a VA hospital would be referred to a community-based treatment program or halfway house, with the VA paying the bills for up to 90 days, St. John said.
Carmalieta Witherspoon, a VANATA counselor for 10 years, rejected the idea that an addict can be reformed in 30 days. "All we're going to be doing now is getting someone physically detoxified," Witherspoon said. "There will be no time to get them used to the idea of recovery."
The program serves about 30 persons at a time and there generally is a waiting list of between 50 and 75 names. Honorably discharged veterans are eligible for the program, which Devlin said costs the government $300 a day.
The graduates have vowed to fight to get the program restored to its full six months. Two weeks ago they gathered 1,400 signatures on a petition circulated at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Despite VANATA's uncertain future, the mood at the reunion was upbeat as the graduates shared success stories. The reunions were started by two 1976 VANATA graduates, Arthur Rush and Ed Henson, as a way to reward people for staying off drugs. Most of the graduates brought friends and family to the event, and 10 persons now in the program also attended.
"We wanted to give the guys who were still in something to look forward to, to give our families something to be proud of, and to show the community that recovery is possible," Rush said. "If you had seen some of these guys when they were on the street, you wouldn't have believed they could look so beautiful in a tuxedo."
When Paul Muth, 32, entered the program in 1985, he had already been in jail five times and was facing an 87-year sentence for selling phony drug prescriptions. His marriage was breaking up because of his 15-year-old habit. "My favorite drug of choice was drugs -- cocaine, heroin, PCP, pills. It didn't matter," said Muth.
Today, Muth said, he is the top salesman for a local heating oil company.
For Linda Macek, a 1983 graduate of the program, the hardest part of getting over addiction was realizing she would have to change her entire way of life. "I had to leave the man I was living with and all my friends. I couldn't go to all the places I had been going to because there were always drugs and alcohol there," she said.
Through the VANATA program, she said, she found a new circle of friends and a new self-image. Last month Macek, 27, graduated with honors from American University with a degree in nursing.
According to the graduates, many of whom had unsuccessfully completed other treatment programs in the area, VANATA's strength lies in the program's highly structured format and family-like atmosphere. The patients are required to attend, and in many cases run, up to 12 hours of therapy, meetings and workshops every day.
Once they complete the program, graduates are encouraged to attend daily meetings of Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous and to contact VANATA when they feel the need. Rush said that some people have returned to VANATA after suffering a relapse "because they know they will be welcomed back with open arms.