Russ Granger has been sober for 10 years. He self-reported his alcoholism in 2002, successfully sought treatment and was essentially an Air Force poster child for seeking help. He made an Air Force Video that went out to bases all over the world encouraging airmen to get help. In 2007, he became a first shirt at Aviano. He just received his 10-year sobriety coin from AA. (Marina Moore)
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Master Sgt. Russell Granger placed the call that changed his life the evening of Aug. 12, 2002. He'd consumed about three pints of whiskey and a case of beer in eight hours. His wife, fed up with Granger's years of heavy drinking, had kicked him out of the house.
"I'm gonna die quickly or I'm gonna die slowly," he thought as he phoned his boss for help. It was the first step.
Granger, then a technical sergeant, completed the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment Program, called ADAPT for short. He got sober, reconciled with his wife and got promoted. He ran recovery meetings and shared his story with other airmen; in a two-minute video with the Defense Department's American Forces Network Europe in September 2011, Granger, then a first sergeant at Aviano Air Base, Italy, recounted his experiences.
In many ways, Granger exemplified what Air Force leaders for years have been trying to convince the ranks: Seeking mental health services does not automatically compromise a career.
Granger held himself out as such during a decade of sobriety. But after a reference to his prior alcoholism on the feedback of his Enlisted Performance Report, he's not so sure.
"I believe you overstate your previous Alcohol Anonymous involvement as a positive mentoring opportunity; this brings the wrong perspective to the unit," his supervisor wrote. "You need to get aboard with where [the 31st Maintenance Operation Squadron] is headed [in accordance with] our strategic plan."
Granger scored a four out of five on the EPR a career-ender in a service that notoriously hands out perfect scores, and especially for a master sergeant vying to become one of the only 13 percent promoted to E-8 each year.
"I felt like it was used against me," Granger said. "My career was crushed."
‘De-stigmatizing' getting help
With incidents of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide on the uptick more airmen killed themselves in the first three months of the year than in any other first quarter in a decade the service has underscored the message that it's OK to ask for help.
Most airmen believe the assurances, according to a 2011 study by the Air Force. Slightly more than four in five airmen surveyed said they believed getting help was unlikely to affect their careers.
Airmen did worry about what their colleagues would think if they sought out mental health services, and more than half had a moderate to negative view of mental health help.
"I hate to use the word ‘stigma,' but that's something we as the Air Force are striving to overcome," Chief Master Sgt. James Roy said in a Sept. 7 interview with Air Force Times.
The service's top enlisted leader recalled an airman first class who once came to him for help while Roy was a master sergeant stationed overseas. The airman, a heavy equipment operator, confessed that he'd had an alcohol problem since high school.
"As a supervisor, I walked him over there to see that he was embraced by that helping organization," Roy said. "When he went in-residence, we visited and supported him. You've heard me refer to this as bold leadership. Those are the kinds of things that we're talking about.
"We've got to continue to do that and try to de-stigmatize some of that idea that it's bad. … It's not bad. I think it shows the strength of that person if you have the fortitude to be able to go seek help like that. To me it means an awful lot," Roy said. "We need to continue to emphasize that it's OK to step out and talk about your story, it's OK to step out and be that leader we want you to be."
Yet despite these declarations by Roy and other Air Force leaders, some airmen say their careers suffered after they voluntarily sought help and successfully completed treatment.
Roy said he could not speak about specific cases. But there could be other factors at play, he said, such as disciplinary actions. If an airman feels he or she has been unjustly targeted as a result of asking for mental health treatment, it should be taken up within the chain of command.
In addition to Granger's case, Air Force Times readers shared the following accounts:
A staff sergeant said he has twice been denied the chance to become a recruiter after voluntarily seeking marriage counseling and help dealing with family and work stressors.
A technical sergeant said he was forced to retire from the Kansas Air National Guard when he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder while deployed to Sather Air Base, Iraq. He'd reported difficulty sleeping, he said, because of the loss of two friends on a prior deployment.
An enlisted airman said he was told he could not become an officer after he self-reported an alcohol problem and successfully completed treatment while seeking a commission. He appealed his case all the way to the Air Force secretary, with no change in the outcome.
The airmen asked that their names not be used for fear that speaking out could bring further damage to their careers.
Granger said he has little to lose by talking about his experience.
He spent two years in college before joining the Air Force in 1989. Things went well at first. In 1991, he married his wife, Deneen, whom he'd known since high school. Soon after, they moved to Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., where, Granger said, he encountered a stressful work environment. He started drinking more heavily as a way to deal with it.
"I'd take the stress home, and that would stress out my wife, and I got stressed that she was stressed," Granger recalled. Eventually, "I just got so used to drinking I couldn't stop. It was to a point where my body needed it."
Granger said he hid it from most people. He continued to perform well at work fives on all of his performance reports, according to the American Forces Network video at www.dodlive.mil.
He earned a master's degree in business administration in 1999. Three years later, he hit bottom. Granger remembers feeling sober after consuming enough alcohol to kill him.
In ADAPT, Granger said he learned how to start talking about his problems. In 2007, he marked five years of sobriety and was named first sergeant of a vehicle maintenance squadron at a Navy base in Port Hueneme, Calif. He served as first sergeant again in 2010, this time with the 31st MOS at Aviano.
The Air Force "knew I recovered from an issue and was able to do good things. I would share my story. Unfortunately, there's a lot of drinking in the military. The bases I've been at, we've had issues with DUIs more than we should have," Granger said.
"I was a very popular first sergeant at Aviano. People from other squadrons would come talk to me. They knew I honest-to-gosh care about the people. There were times when a first sergeant couldn't be found from other squadrons, and I got notified."
Granger said he talked about his prior alcoholism when asked. He said he could also recognize in others what he had seen in himself.
One performance report documents some of his successes: Helping two suicidal airmen, who recovered. Interceding in domestic disputes that were escalating. Finding counseling for Air Force dependents and arranging emergency leaves. An October 2011 EPR encourages him to get more involved with the community. Granger said he did.
A month before, he made the video promoting the Air Force's ADAPT program and telling his own story about his alcoholism. He says he received permission from his commander.
Granger's life was on track. He was looking to get promoted to senior master sergeant, though he had missed the cutoff five times the most recent in February by 29 points. Of the 12,531 master sergeants considered in that cycle, 1,702 were selected. Only 16 of 113 eligible were in Granger's specialty, 2M0X0.
Then came the evaluation criticizing his talk about alcoholism. The four on his EPR will ensure he retires as a master sergeant next year when he hits 24 years, the high-year tenure limit for an E-7.
"Making senior master sergeant as a first sergeant is not easy, but this next go, I would have at least a chance," Granger said. "With the four [on my EPR] and no senior rater endorsement, my records will be removed almost immediately during the records review process."
After receiving the markdown on his EPR, Granger submitted a request to give up his position as first sergeant.
When he announced his decision on Facebook in March, dozens of airmen responded: "You are my hero! The [first sergeant] community is losing one of the best shirts I've ever known," one person wrote.
"You are and will always be one of the most-loved and emulated first sergeants I have ever known. I would stand next to you anytime, anywhere, any day, and with my head held high," another said.
"Shirt, good luck in your future endeavors. You represent the best of what it means to wear that diamond. Thanks for the help and guidance you've given me along the way. Hands down the best shirt I've ever had," wrote a third.
More than 50 respondents expressed similar sentiments.
Granger contacted the Inspector General's Office at Aviano about the alcoholism reference on the feedback portion of his evaluation. The IG said it couldn't help him, he said. "I was by myself."
He also tried to appeal the score of four on the evaluation, which he said was based on the alcohol reference and other factors, but the appeal was returned for insufficient evidence of wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, Granger left Aviano for Vandenberg, where he works as flight chief of 1st Air and Space Test Squadron Mission Assurance.
He took up the issue with his chain of command, he said, and has been instructed to work with the IG office at Vandenberg. He also has re-submitted his appeal with what he hopes is enough information this time.
Granger said he is optimistic. If the four stands, and his Air Force career ends, he said he is OK with that.
For now, he's still trying to use his experiences to help others. He's serving on a DUI task force at Vandenberg and recently briefed the 30th Space Wing during a commander's call, in which he talked about how getting help showed strength not weakness.
"People are using my knowledge, thankfully," Granger said.
Staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org?subject=Question from AirForceTimes.com reader">Markeshia Ricks contributed to this report.