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USS Sioux City Winnefelds

Mary Winnefeld, center, and her husband, Admiral James A. “Sandy” Winnefeld, Jr., right, talk about S.A.F.E. Project, a non-profit they founded devoted to fighting opioid abuse, during an interview Wednesday at the Sioux City Journal. Sandy Winnefeld is a former Vice Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff and Mary is the ship's sponsor of the USS Sioux City. Their 19-year-old son, Jonathan, died of an opioid overdose. At left is David Trott, S.A.F.E. program treatment manager.

SIOUX CITY -- Ret. U.S. Navy Admiral James A. "Sandy" Winnefeld, Jr., and his wife, Mary Winnefeld, made a swing through Sioux City on Wednesday to address two focal points in their lives these days:

No. 1: The USS Sioux City, for which Mary Winnefeld serves as sponsor. At the gala celebration in two weeks, Mary will holler, "USS Sioux City: Man our ship," to sailors serving the first U.S. Naval ship ever to be commissioned at Annapolis, Maryland, home of the U.S. Naval Academy, where their oldest son, James A. Winnefield III, is a Midshipman. Sandy Winnefeld, who spent 37 years in the Navy, served as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2011 to 2015.

I'll write about the couple's work with the USS Sioux City in a couple of weeks as launch day approaches, Nov. 17.

That brings us to, No. 2, the other focal point for this courageous tandem. The Winnefelds spent time in Sioux City sharing information about S.A.F.E. (Stop the Addiction Fatality Epidemic,) a nonprofit they launched on Nov. 29, 2017, mere weeks after their youngest son, Jonathan Winnefeld, died as his freshman year commenced at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado. Three days after starting his collegiate experience, Winnefeld, 19, was found unresponsive in his dormitory, one of several victims of a batch of heroin laced with fentanyl that spread through Denver that week.

Since that time, the Winnefelds have crossed wide swaths of the country, addressing assemblies in 18 states, alerting tens of thousands of people to the danger of opioid addiction, which, in 2017 alone, killed an estimated 140 Americans per day, a staggering number.

"When we began our nonprofit, we structured it around six things we must do," Sandy Winnefeld said in a visit to the Journal. Those duties involve sharing information about topics ranging from public awareness to prevention, to prescription medication, law enforcement and medical response, treatment and recovery and family outreach and support.

Key points, he said, include these nuggets:

"Only 10 percent of those who need treatment are getting it."

"Doctors and dentists must be more responsible in their prescriptions...And, we must all learn how to properly dispose of our medications at home."

"There is a stigma when it it comes to public awareness. This is a disease, not a moral failing."

Opioids, Mary stressed, don't discriminate when it comes to gender, age, race, socioeconomic levels, or anything, really. It's an epidemic costing $504 billion per year in healthcare and costs related to lost productivity. Some 90,000 children have been put in foster care because of opioid addiction, and that doesn't include the number of children who've been shuttled to other family members and friends apart from a formal foster care arrangement. Again, the numbers are staggering.

"We lost 72,000 people in 2017," Sandy Winnefeld said of opioids' fury. "That's more than our losses in war from the Vietnam War through today."

The Winnefelds, who traveled with David Trott, a full-time manager in treatment and rehabilitation for S.A.F.E., addressed students at Bishop Heelan High School before keynoting the annual meeting luncheon for The Siouxland Initiative. Trott, a Vanderbilt University graduate who served as student body president, is 27 and noted that one decade ago he looked very much like the high schoolers sitting before him.

"I've been in recovery for about a year," he said.

"It's the most important work he's ever done," Sandy Winnefeld said with a glance toward Trott.

The Winnefelds often say that if they knew in 2107 what they know now they would have their youngest son. The pain they feel and the love they have for their son compels them to push ahead, doing all they can to help the S.A.F.E. Project establish S.A.F.E. Communities that evaluate a community's condition based on the six factors listed previously. Ultimately, they're trying to create a playbook communities may use to save precious lives.

If just one person is saved, if just one family and community can be kept whole in the face of this brutal epidemic, the work is so worth it.

Jonathan Winnefeld, a pitcher who possessed a nasty curve ball for his high school baseball team, detailed the impact of conducting compressions on a man in cardiac arrest, result of a heroin overdose. The situation came about on Jonathan's first ride-along as an EMT. The desperate scene that played out in a McDonald's bathroom would serve as the focal point for his freshman seminar essay at Denver. Though just a teen, his words show hopefulness, awareness, and a desire to work with and save others.

"Jonathan came out of treatment," his father said. "He was a courageous young man, a warrior. He wanted to be an EMT to help others. Someday, he was going to be a paramedic and a fireman, working to help teens and adolescents."

Mary dabbed her eyes with a tissue. "Don't let hope be a strategy," she said. "Stand up."

She'd rather step on someone's toes than their grave, she said. And so, the battle continues. A mother and father press on for the boy they lost.

"Seeing pallbearers who were 19-years-old was devastating," she said. "Jonathan's best friend put a baseball on top of his coffin."

Sandy and Mary Winnefeld have taken the ball now. They've picked up Jonathan's fight. And, in the process, they work to pick up -- perhaps one day save -- many others.

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