When Charlie Bannon* came home from Iraq in 2007, he brought with him a raging addiction to pain pills.
During a mortar attack, Charlie was thrown off a platform he was standing on by a blast, and he ruptured several discs in his spine. His doctors prescribed Lortab, a combination of the narcotic hydrocodone (an opioid) and acetaminophen, commonly known by the trade name Tylenol.
Charlie met Jessica in his unit stateside where he worked as a mechanic at Camp Shelby just outside of Hattiesburg. They got married in December of 2009. Jessica says she wasn’t aware of his addiction then, but he did turn out to be an abusive spouse.
“Everything that could have been good ended up being horrible,” Jessica said.
In those early days, Charlie didn’t physically abuse his wife, but he was suspicious, controlling, and he demeaned her.
“I would sit in the corner crying while he yelled at me … belittling me,” Jessica said.
Charlie’s former wife had cheated on him, Jessica recalled. “He just didn’t trust anybody.”
But drug abuse and addiction don’t make people become abusive. As Jessica said about Charlie, “That’s his nature.”
Drugs exacerbate abusive and violent tendencies; they don’t cause them.
The link between substance abuse and intimate violence is complex; however, up to 60 percent of domestic violence incidents also involve substance abuse according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine. In one study from the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence found that 47 percent of domestic assaults occurred after substance use, whether drugs or alcohol.
Victims of domestic violence are often at risk for becoming addicts themselves in addition to developing health problems from injury, sexually transmitted diseases, eating disorders and suicide, according to the website DrugRehab.com.
Addicts may introduce and even force drug use on their victims. In extreme cases, women may be forced into prostitution to pay for an abuser’s addiction. And sometimes, victims will take drugs to dull their own pain and hopelessness.
While most addicts aren’t abusive toward their partners, a large number of abusive people also engage in substance abuse. Regardless, no conclusive evidence has shown a link between opioid use and domestic violence. One 2007 study did show that continued use of opioids by either the men alone or both partners seemed to be associated with risk for more serious forms of intimate partner violence.
Intimate partner violence also exacerbates mental health and substance use disorders, according to Dr. Carole Warshaw of the National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma and Mental Health. It is “common” for abusers “to engage in behaviors designed to undermine their partners’ sanity and sobriety, control their partner’s ability to engage in treatment, and discredit them with potential sources of protection and support,” Warshaw indicated in a panel discussion reported in the Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs newsletter.
In Warshaw’s study, the overwhelming majority of respondents said their abusers had called them “crazy” or had deliberately done things to make them feel they were losing their minds.
The ‘soldier’s disease’
The year after they married, in 2010, Charlie was deployed again, this time to Afghanistan. That’s when Jessica realized her husband had a problem with his pain pills.
“I don’t know what truly happened to make him start taking more than he was prescribed,” she said. Jessica was filling Charlie’s prescriptions and sending the maximum amount she could get at one time from the pharmacy.
Charlie began asking her to send more a few weeks after she’d sent him three month’s worth of pills. Once, he told Jessica that the pills had been stolen from his locker, but there was always another excuse, she said.
Drug abuse in the American military is as old as the country itself. During the Revolutionary War, Dr. Benjamin Rush detailed the effects of alcohol on the troops. During the Civil War, opium addiction became known as the “soldier’s disease.”
“Drug problems in both the military and civilian sectors have intensified throughout the 20th century as the types and formulations of substances being used have increased,” wrote the authors of “Substance Use Disorders in the U.S. Armed Forces,” published in 2012.
“While the popular substances of abuse may shift from decade to decade, the overarching problem continues. In the 21st century, prescription opioid abuse has arisen as a major area of concern. … As the United States approaches the end of the longest continuous period of war in our history, the stresses faced by our military population are apparent. Our all-volunteer military has endured long periods of deployment and redeployment in highly taxing and demanding environments. Consequently, posttraumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, substance abuse, and suicide are at very high levels.”
In May of this year, U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie praised his department’s model for ending opioid addiction in the military.
“More than 100 million Americans suffer from some form of chronic pain, and the overuse and misuse of opioids for pain management in our country is taking too many lives,” Wilkie said in a statement. “Veterans who have served our nation are particularly challenged by chronic pain. VA has demonstrated success in reducing opioid use, while addressing the challenge of living well with chronic pain.”
The statement said that the VA “is not starting Veterans with chronic, noncancer pain on long-term opioid therapy, but is instead offering them complementary pain management strategies. These treatments include use of complementary therapies, such as acupuncture, yoga, chiropractic medicine, tai chi and bio-feedback, among other modalities, and have proven to be more effective for Veterans long term. Veterans are 40 percent more likely to have severe, chronic pain than non-Veterans.
“VA has employed four broad strategies to address the opioid epidemic: education, pain management, risk mitigation and addiction treatment. VA addressed the problem of clinically inappropriate high-dose prescribing of opioids, while developing an effective system of interdisciplinary, patient-aligned pain management to provide safe and effective pain control. In the process, VA trained hundreds of clinicians on this approach to pain management.”
How well the VA’s model is working has yet to be determined through peer-reviewed studies. Nonetheless, “Veterans are now achieving success in managing chronic pain,” the statement concluded.
In an article published by the University of Michigan Health Lab in May 2019, the same month as the VA statement referenced above, the authors wrote the following:
“Writing in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, a team from the University of Michigan and VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System report that veterans’ rate of overdose deaths from all opioids increased by 65 percent from 2010 to 2016.
“… The increases in opioid overdose deaths among veterans parallel those seen in the general population. The rise happened mainly because of a rise in deaths from heroin, fentanyl and other powerful synthetic opioids, or multiple opioids at once.”
‘I’ve had enough’
As Charlie’s addiction became worse, so did his behavior. “His temper got worse,” Jessica said. “His inability to process what was going on was an issue.”
He also became more suspicious. “He was the type of person that if I wanted to be away from him, he made it so hard,” Jessica said. He would threaten her. “You’re not taking my son from me!” Charlie would shout. She and Charlie both had children from previous marriages, but Charlie had fathered their youngest boy.
By 2012, Jessica was working full time with the Mississippi National Guard and taking a full load of college classes at the University of Southern University. She wanted to make a better life for her children.
That year, Charlie had surgery for his back, and he enrolled in a pain management program through the Army, where he would get injections directly into his neck. One condition of the program restricted Charlie from getting pain pills from other doctors. It was a condition he couldn’t keep. When he got a prescription for Lortab from his family doctor, Charlie was thrown out of the program.
He began to steal drugs from his friends, Jessica said, and it’s likely he was also buying pills off the street.
Jessica began to extricate herself from her marriage. She rented an apartment without telling Charlie.
“For a while, I was scared, but I finally realized it was hot air,” she said, referring to Charlie’s threats.
“I was moving out of the house that we shared to my apartment, and he never noticed. If you’re that out of it, there’s something wrong.”
In December of 2012, Charlie had an accident at work were he fell on his head and fractured his skull. When Jessica was called to the hospital, she knew it was over between them.
“It was at that moment that I realized I just didn’t care anymore,” she said.
A few months later, Charlie was driving his two oldest children back to his ex-wife after a visit when he apparently fell asleep on the highway.
“I noticed that he took his pill bottle with him,” Jessica said, remembering she thought it was weird.
The truck they were traveling in went up an embankment, rolled over and landed facing the opposite direction. No other vehicles were involved.
When Jessica came to the hospital, she found that no one was seriously hurt, but both of Charlie’s children were visibly upset.
“He was more concerned about his truck,” Jessica said, than his two children in tears. “He was yelling and screaming at me. I finally said ‘I’ve had enough,’ and I left.”
Blood work showed Charlie had opioids in his system, and he didn’t have a prescription at the time. Despite that, Charlie wasn’t charged because of a technicality. Jessica later learned that he had stolen Percocet—an opioid formulation similar to Lortab—from an old girlfriend.
Jessica quickly learned that abusive men are most dangerous when their women try to leave, even temporarily.
Jessica was going out with friends on her birthday when Charlie confronted her in their garage. He threatened to smash her car windows with a trailer hitch, and he took a swing at her. He then pushed her up against the wall.
“Let go of me now,” Jessica told him. “Nobody puts their hands on me.” She finally called the police, who arrested him for assault.
It was the first and only time Charlie had become physically violent. Jessica took her two children and left Charlie for good.
Today, Jessica is worried about how much her boys remember about Charlie. Her father had always been Jessica’s role model and the reason she had enlisted with the Guard. She’s proud to be part of a military family with records of service reaching back to the Civil War.
Jessica’s boys don’t have a model father. Charlie hasn’t paid a penny in child support, and Jessica figures he owes her more than $15,000. Their 2017 divorce decree granted him visitation rights, but Jessica said Charlie has never visited their son, not once.
She isn’t motivated to go after him for the money he owes. Jessica seems satisfied to have Charlie out of her life.
Charlie is out of the Army. “It’s probably more that he was forced out than he voluntarily got out,” she said, but she’s not certain. Charlie gets disability payments from the VA, and he lives with a woman he was having an affair with while he and Jessica were still married.
Jessica is a little less trusting than she was before Charlie came into her life. Her advice to any woman who finds herself in a similar situation is simple: “Get out.”
“Look for red flags,” she said, “Especially how they treat other people.”
She strongly advises women to remove themselves and their children from a bad situation, whether it’s a matter of abuse, a drug addiction problem or both. If you want to help your spouse, do everything you can to get them into a rehabilitation program, but don’t sacrifice yourself.
“Be selfish about it,” Jessica said, “…Don’t risk your health for anyone.”
Above all, “Don’t be scared to ask for help,” she said.
If you or someone you know is in a violent domestic situation, please seek help. In Vicksburg and Warren County, contact the Haven House Shelter at 601-638-0555. If you need immediate help, dial 911.
Drug addiction services are available through the Warren-Yazoo Mental Health Service, Chemical Dependency Center at 3442 Wisconsin Ave., in Vicksburg. Call 601-634-0181.
This story is the third of an ongoing series about the opioid drug crises in Mississippi, focusing on the people of Vicksburg and Warren County. Read the first two stories, “‘It was just kind of normal.’ A Vicksburg family struggles with opioid addiction,” and “‘This makes me feel better.’ A daughter’s story.”
*At their request, we have changed the names and some personal details to protect the privacy of the family featured in this story.See a typo? Report it here.