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Obituary: Joseph Zuska, 93, first U.S. Navy alcoholism treatment

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  • Phil
    LA Times obituary for Dr. Joseph Zuska who (with AA member Cmdr. Dick Jewell, ret d) started the first officially sanctioned alcoholism treatment program for
    Message 1 of 1 , May 24, 2007
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      LA Times obituary for Dr. Joseph Zuska who
      (with AA member Cmdr. Dick Jewell, ret'd)
      started the first officially sanctioned
      alcoholism treatment program for U.S. Navy
      personnel during the mid 1960's.

      - - - -

      AA History Lovers,

      Please find below article of the LA Times
      Obituary for Joe Zuska, MD, Navy Retired
      Captain who passed away recently. I am sure
      many in this group know someone who received
      treatment in the Navy Alcohol Treatment
      Program, including myself and those who are
      current or former members of the Navy's
      "Drydocks." My condolences to all affected
      by his passing.


      - - - -

      Joseph Zuska, 93
      Navy doctor developed treatment for alcoholism
      By Jocelyn Y. Stewart,
      Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
      Obituaries May 24, 2007

      Inside a rusted Quonset hut at the Long Beach
      Naval Station, Dr. Joseph J. Zuska operated a
      clandestine program, treating sailors for an
      illness that in the eyes of the Navy did not
      exist. It was the mid-1960s, a time when
      alcoholism and its accompanying behavior were
      treated as violations of Navy policy, punishable
      by time in the brig. Yet the atmosphere on
      base and at sea encouraged heavy drinking.
      The abiding image of the drunk sailor was a
      reality for many.

      After a conversation with a retired Navy
      commander who was also a recovering alcoholic,
      Zuska began treating the illness as a medical
      problem. His underground program, the first in
      the history of the armed forces, eventually
      earned national acclaim, providing a model
      for other branches of the military and private

      Zuska died May 17 at Los Alamitos Medical Center
      of complications from kidney failure and other
      illnesses, his son, John Zuska, said. He was
      93. "He's well-loved by thousands of alcoholics
      across the country whose lives he actually
      saved, including mine," said Charley B. who
      served in the Air Force and was treated by
      Zuska beginning in 1969. He asked that his full
      name not be used, following a tradition that
      honors the anonymity of Alcoholics Anonymous

      In the years after Zuska retired in 1970, the
      rehabilitation program placed many notables on
      the path to sobriety, including former First
      Lady Betty Ford; Billy Carter, brother of former
      President Carter; and Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz
      Aldrin. The program, which operated out of the
      Long Beach Naval Hospital on Terminal Island,
      included inpatient medical care, daily group
      therapy, psychological counseling, Alcoholics
      Anonymous meetings, lectures and movies on
      alcoholism. The highly effective treatment
      allowed patients to "return to work and saved
      the Navy money by salvaging people," said Dr.
      Ted Williams, director of addiction treatment
      services at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, who
      headed the Navy program in the 1980s. Before
      the birth of the program, the prevailing belief
      was that nothing could be done for alcoholics.
      When doctors made the diagnosis, a sailor could
      be demoted or booted out of the Navy.

      The turnabout for Zuska began with a question.
      One day in 1965, retired Navy Cmdr. Dick Jewell
      walked into his office and asked: What are you
      doing about alcoholism in the Navy? "I had no
      answers," Zuska said in a 1997 Times article.
      "The Navy, including myself, had no real
      understanding of the disease process of alco-
      holism." But Jewell, new to the world of
      sobriety, was full of enthusiasm and the
      belief that alcoholism could be treated. Zuska,
      who was the senior medical officer at the Long
      Beach Naval Station and a captain, had the
      power, if not the authorization, to put that
      belief into practice. "That day they created
      what became the No. 1 system for treating
      alcoholics," said Dr. Joseph A. Pursch, who
      ran the program after Zuska retired.

      Though the program had not been approved by
      Navy officials, Zuska began holding weekly
      meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous in a
      conference room at the naval station, then
      moved to the Quonset hut when the number of
      participants grew. The doctor found an 80-bed
      barracks and turned it into an inpatient
      recovery facility. Word soon spread that lives
      were being changed, and higher-ups in the Navy
      found out.

      "The brass was alarmed for two reasons: Accord-
      ing to policy there were no alcoholics in the
      Navy at that time, hence there was no need
      for a treatment policy; and there were quite
      a few alcoholic admirals and generals on active
      duty in the Pentagon," Pursch wrote in a 1987
      column for The Times. A commission was sent
      to investigate what was called an illegal
      activity, but it acknowledged that the Navy
      had alcoholics and that the treatment program
      Zuska had created was effective.

      In 1967 the Pentagon gave Zuska approval for
      the first official Alcohol Rehabilitation
      Center, and by 1971, 70% of 900 patient
      admissions showed "demonstrated improvement."
      In the 1980s the Navy's surgeon general sent
      doctors to Long Beach to learn from the
      program. The Navy eventually opened 33
      rehabilitation centers around the world.
      By the early 1990s the Navy had shut down
      the hospital and later scaled back the program
      in favor of outpatient treatment.

      An increase in awareness about alcoholism
      and effective treatments in the military is
      attributed to Zuska. Zuska was born in
      Chicago on June 9, 1913, and earned his
      medical degree from the University of
      Illinois. He married Martha Josephine Parham
      in 1939, and the couple had two children. In
      addition to his son, of Oakland, Zuska is
      survived by daughter Sky St. Cloud of Culver
      City and granddaughter Sarah Zuska of

      During World War II, Zuska provided medical
      care to Marines during the Battle of Tarawa
      and at Saipan. In the Korean War, he was
      chief of surgery on a hospital ship attending
      to those wounded during the Inchon invasion.
      Decades of experience in the military informed
      his view of the causes of alcoholism. What
      he saw led him to reject the view widely held
      in the 1960s that alcoholism was rooted in
      moral weakness or caused by an emotional

      Zuska recalled an officers club where he had
      to pay for coffee but wine was free. There
      were bar games such as the "pressure cooker,"
      in which drinks were 10 cents each until
      someone left; then they were full price.
      People don't fall off the wagon, Zuska said
      in a 1976 Times article. "They're pushed off
      by society's insistence that they have a
      drink," he said. "Modern society doesn't
      relish the idea that some people can't drink
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