James A Winnefeld Speaks Out On the Opioid Crisis


“We realized, at that point, that we could not keep our son safe,” Winnefeld said.

After about five days of searching, Winnefeld found a treatment center to take Jonathan. And after 15 months of treatment, Jonathan began to return to who he once was. “It takes that long for the brain to recover from the physiological, psychological changes that have taken place,” Winnefeld said. “We saw his ambition come back. We saw his zest for life.”

During his treatment, Jonathan received his Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) qualifications. In an admissions essay to the University of Denver, Jonathan wrote about a time where he had to administer CPR to someone undergoing a heroin overdose in a McDonald’s bathroom. Winnefeld shared how Jonathan wrote that “at that moment, he had decided he would dedicate his life to helping people who could not help themselves.”

Yet addiction is a powerful thing, Winnefeld explained. Three weeks later Jonathan passed away, relapsing on heroin that had been laced with fentanyl.  

“In the wake of his loss, we had a choice,” Winnefeld said. “We could crawl up into a ball of anger, shame, and grief, which we did plenty of times.” But his family also decided that “we would feel terrible if we did not stand up and try to help the rest of this large community of people who are trying to reverse this epidemic, if we didn’t try and do our part.”

So, the Winnfelds started SAFE, which Andersen described as “amazingly comprehensive in its approach to the opioid epidemic.” SAFE combats the opioid crisis from six different angles. It works on public awareness, trying to lower the stigma of addiction. It also  focuses on prevention in vulnerable populations like high schools, and seeks to have doctors moderate their prescription of opioids.

The nonprofit also emphasizes law enforcement’s response to opioid addiction, trying to assure that addiction isn’t criminalized. SAFE considers medical response critical to fighting the crisis, and works to make sure every first responder is equipped with the life saving drug of naloxone that can reverse the symptoms of an overdose.

Winnefeld’s nonprofit also attempts to expand treatment, which  he noted can be expensive and rare. Only twenty percent of Americans who need treatment today currently receive it.

Lastly, SAFE works on family outreach and support. SAFE’s website includes “lessons learned” from families all across the country that have suffered from addiction. It aims to share with communities what Winnefeld didn’t know when his son was suffering, such as the science of addiction, and the science of treatment and recovery. “We just didn’t understand it,” Winnefeld explained.

“If I only knew then what I know now,” he said, “I would still have our son.”

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to [email protected]

Madeleine Carlisle is an editorial fellow at The Atlantic.


USA News


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here