Recovery Stories Russell Whitehead

Combat Veteran Turns His Life Around
After Battling Alcohol Abuse

In 2006, Russell Whitehead realized a lifelong goal when he joined the military. But a cocaine-fueled night followed by a failed drug test resulted in his discharge from the Army. After receiving multiple DUI charges, Russell sought treatment. He has been sober ever since.

As a teenager, Russell Whitehead dreamed of joining the U.S. military.

He envisioned himself donning a fatigue cap and a camouflage uniform with his last name stitched across the right side of the chest. Russell was eager to fight for his country’s freedom and help those in need. He wanted a meaningful career.

“Both of my brothers joined the National Guard, and that led to me wanting to join the military,” Russell told

He would go on to fulfill his childhood dream, joining the Army at age 20. After a troubled youth in northern Oklahoma, the military gave him structure. He forged friendships, learned valuable life lessons and saved innocent civilians during combat.

But alcohol abuse and cocaine use cut short a promising career. He was kicked out of the military for failing a drug test. Afterward, fueled by the painful memories of his past, he routinely engaged in heavy drinking. He was also charged with driving under the influence multiple times.

Just before hitting rock bottom, Russell entered a treatment program that catered specifically to veterans. And it saved his life.

“I’m in a much better place now,” he said. “I’m a changed man.”

Row of soldiers boots

From Garber to Fort Bragg

Russell grew up in Garber, Oklahoma, a modest town of about 800 residents. Nestled roughly 100 miles west of Tulsa, the community consists of two gas stations, one high school and no traffic lights. Farmland dominates much of the area.

“It was a very small, friendly farming community,” said Russell.

He said not many activities for children existed in northern Oklahoma. As a child, he had to find ways to entertain himself. He often would ride his bike throughout town with his friends, go fishing or spend time on his grandmother’s farm.

Russell began getting into trouble with the law in high school. He started drinking, smoking marijuana and occasionally using cocaine. Between ages 18 and 20, he was arrested three times. He was charged with possessing drug paraphernalia, driving with an open container and conspiracy to commit a felony.

“I used to dream about joining the military, but those feelings faded my senior year of high school,” said Russell. “But after my [third] arrest, I realized that staying in Oklahoma probably was not in my best interest.”

In 2006, Russell dropped out of college and joined the Army. He enlisted as a health care specialist, a role that involves providing medical treatment to the wounded on the battlefield.

Russell in Army fatigues

Shortly after joining the Army, Russell Whitehead was deployed to Iraq.

“I decided to become a health care specialist because my entire family, aside from my father, was in the medical field,” said Russell. “That and the thought of treating people on the battlefield seemed like an upside to war.”

After completing basic training, he was stationed in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He worked for the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, an infantry division that specializes in parachute assault operations. Russell was in North Carolina for just two weeks before his unit, the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, was deployed to the Middle East.

Picture of humveys in Iraq

Living in a War Zone

In 2007, Russell arrived in Kuwait. He was waiting to cross the Iraqi border when the Army’s 5-73 Cavalry Regiment in Iraq was hit by two vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices. The attack killed nine soldiers, including two medics.

The 5-73 Regiment was now down health care specialists, so the Army transferred Russell to the unit. He was flown into Iraq the following morning.

“It’s not easy to join a new unit mid-deployment,” said Russell. “But after the first casualties were treated, I earned the ability to be called doc. And from that point on, they were my soldiers, and I was their doctor.”

Russell’s infantry occupied a small town located about 60 miles north of Baghdad. Soldiers would go on foot patrols, monitoring specific regions throughout the area to remove a large insurgent population from the town.

“My unit cleared this town and got insurgents out of the village,” said Russell. “Afterward, we stayed around to improve relations between the United States and Iraq, set up trade among communities and make sure [Iraqi] kids were going to school.”

Russell in Army bunk

As a health care specialist, Russell Whitehead tended to wounded soldiers and civilians on the battlefield.

Russell’s job wasn’t easy. On a number of occasions, he treated Iraqi civilians and his own men and women. He cared for wounded soldiers hit by rocket-propelled grenades. He also tended to burn victims, many of whom were small children.

Improvised explosive devices were common in Iraq. Many bombs consisted of a pressure plate connected to an extension cord. The cord was tied to a fire extinguisher filled with about 60 pounds of explosives. When activated, the device would shoot shrapnel and rebar, killing or severely wounding anyone nearby.

Russell once treated a U.S. soldier who had set off an explosive device. Shrapnel tore into both legs. A piece of rebar impaled his left elbow, nearly severing the arm. Although severely disfigured, the man lived.

Many others wounded in battle did not.

When Russell’s infantry was ordered to pull security for a marine explosive ordnance disposal technician who was trained to disarm improvised explosive devices, they were told that three IEDs were buried in a field adjacent to a nearby village.

After disarming three bombs, the marine scanned the field to be sure the area was clear. Moments later, he stepped on a fourth device, triggering a massive explosion. The marine died instantly.

“It was a war, so there were casualties,” said Russell. “There were people I could save, other people I could not. I lost acquaintances, and I lost friends.”

Picture of beer bottles

‘I Had Failed My Soldiers’

Many combat veterans struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder after returning home from battle. They often isolate themselves from loved ones. They may also have trouble sleeping, avoid crowds and experience intense anxiety.

However, Russell maintained that he did not deal with these symptoms upon returning to the United States.

“I don’t think I had PTSD,” he said. “I didn’t sleep well, but I interacted just fine with everyone.”

After leaving Iraq, Russell was again stationed in Fort Bragg. He became one of two people in his unit to attend paramedic school in Fayetteville, North Carolina. It marked the first time the Army had sent combat medics to civilian paramedic school, according to Russell.

“It seemed like I couldn’t drink enough. I couldn’t do anything enough to bring back the men that I had lost overseas.”

Russell Whitehead

“Man, I was pumped when I found out,” he said. “I’m not exactly sure why they selected us, but we were both good medics.”

While in North Carolina, he drank frequently with his fellow soldiers. He used to drink heavily in high school, but this time it was different.

“It seemed like I couldn’t drink enough,” he said. “I couldn’t do anything enough to bring back the men that I had lost overseas.”

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One evening in Fayetteville, Russell met with a friend who had been kicked out of the Army. They drank heavily and used cocaine throughout the night. The next morning, Russell’s commander conducted a random drug screening on the soldiers in his unit.

Russell failed the test.

Two weeks later, he was sentenced to 45 days in a correctional facility at Marine Corp Base Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina. He served 30 days. Upon his release in November 2008, Russell learned that he was being discharged from the Army under general conditions.

“That was the worst thing I’ve ever experienced in my life,” said Russell. “I had lost the one thing in my life that I had ever really loved doing. And worse than that, I had failed my soldiers.”

Upon his dismissal from the Army, Russell moved back in with his parents in Garber. He took a paramedic job in Enid, Oklahoma, about 20 miles west of Garber. He would eventually work as an emergency department paramedic and a flight medic before accepting a position as a mechanical designer for a contract engineering firm in Tulsa.

“I had lost the one thing in my life that I had ever really loved doing. And worse than that, I had failed my soldiers.”

Russell Whitehead

In January 2009, Russell was drinking at a friend’s house. He decided to drive home. During the drive, his cell phone slipped out of his pocket and fell to the floor. As he bent to retrieve it, his vehicle swerved off the road and veered into an open field. The police officer who arrived on the scene conducted a field sobriety test and charged Russell with driving under the influence.

Fearing that he’d lose his paramedic license, Russell stayed sober for the next six months. Then, on a whim, he decided to visit his former Army soldiers in North Carolina. He said the trip was a very emotional experience for him.

“I felt a pain that I would never feel that kind of joy again,” said Russell. “That coupled with the memories of all the men that I had lost caused me to begin drinking again.”

Man taking a sobriety test from police officer.

Veterans Treatment Court

In January 2012, Russell received his second DUI after attempting to drive home from a bar. Upon receiving his third DUI three months later, he appeared before a judge in Tulsa. She gave him the opportunity to enter veterans treatment court.

Veterans treatment court is a diversion program that allows veterans with mental health and substance abuse problems to get the help they need. As of July 2017, more than 300 veterans courts existed in the United States.

Russell reclined against his gear.

Russell Whitehead was charged with driving under the influence three times before receiving treatment.

At the behest of his lawyer, Russell entered the Tulsa Veterans Treatment Court in September 2012.

During the first few months of the program, he attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and individual counseling sessions twice a week. He also had to complete urinalysis examinations, participate in community service and attend court each week.

Russell stayed in a duplex in Tulsa throughout his time in drug court. During the first six months, an alcohol monitoring device was strapped around his ankle. But the longer he stayed in veterans treatment court, the less intense the program became.

“It all was a little overwhelming,” Russell said. “But then it became a nice routine.”

After a while, he began to enjoy the benefits of treatment. He liked going to court. He looked forward to counseling sessions. He wanted to talk to therapists about his problems and how other people handled similar issues.

He expressed appreciation to the program for two events that took place during treatment.

The first occurred in May 2013, when an EF5 tornado struck Moore, Oklahoma, and parts of southern Oklahoma City. Program officials allowed Russell, who still held his paramedic license, to help with the recovery efforts.

The second event took place in November 2013. Russell was permitted to travel home to care for his ailing father who was battling liver cancer. The court also allowed Russell to spend extra time in Oklahoma to mourn his father’s passing with his family.

“I was given dignity and respect during those days, which are two things that I do not take lightly and I will always be grateful for,” said Russell.

Russell stayed in veterans treatment court for 20 months. He graduated in April 2014.

Man looking out on to lake at sunset

A Veteran’s Advice

“I just encourage them and tell them that it’s okay to ask for help. Sometimes it just helps to hear it from a veteran, someone who has gone through similar experiences.”

Russell Whitehead

Throughout veterans treatment court, Russell was allowed to continue working as a mechanical designer in Tulsa. He still works for the engineering firm today. He lives in a house on Keystone Lake in northeastern Oklahoma with his fiancée and three children.

He’s also been sober for five years.

“I don’t go out and drink anymore,” said Russell. “I prefer to stay home and spend time with my family.”

He has offered advice and support to people in the military who have struggled with substance abuse. Sometimes these individuals are not friends or even acquaintances. In some instances, friends ask Russell to speak to their loved one about the dangers of drinking or drug use.

“Some friends ask me to talk to their friends who are in the military because I was in the military,” said Russell. “When I do, I just encourage them and tell them that it’s okay to ask for help. Sometimes it just helps to hear it from a veteran, someone who has gone through similar experiences.”

Russell will always cherish his time in the Army, even though it was short-lived. The military could be difficult at times, he says. The profession is physically, mentally and emotionally taxing. But turning to drugs and alcohol doesn’t fix problems. It worsens them.

Russell and his wife and three children.

Today, Russell Whitehead enjoys spending time with his family in Oklahoma.
Photo by Jessica Nadine Photography.

He also encourages people struggling with addiction to seek help. Rehab taught him to replace his addiction with positive, healthy activities. It showed him how to build relationships with people whose values closely match his own.

Thanks to treatment, Russell is in a better place. He’s healthy, optimistic and supportive. He’s a changed man.

And he believes others marred by addiction, especially veterans, can turn their lives around as well.

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