U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams believes the problem of opioid addiction is not only affecting the nation’s health, but the economy and our security as well.
“The facts are that seven out of 10 of our young people between the ages of 18 and 24 are ineligible to serve in the military because of poor health or the inability to pass a physical,” Adams said Wednesday during a forum in Sugar Grove that focused on drug addiction. “Employers continue to tell us they can’t find enough workers to fill their positions because they can’t pass the drug tests, so the problems in this country are not just affecting our health.”
Adams said he also has a personal reason for fighting drug abuse in America.
“I have a brother who is currently serving 10 years in prison because he stole $200 to support his addiction,” Adams said. “It will cost about $1 million to keep him in prison, but he’ll get no treatment. We have to give law officials more than just the ‘hammer’ because then everything just looks like a nail.”
Adams urged a change in the culture, noting that “a stigma exists everywhere among the medical profession, the law, and society in general” and that drug addiction “is a disease, not a moral failing.”
“It’s important to get out from the bubble in Washington, D.C., and look at our initiatives and see if they are working and playing out the way we thought they would,” Adams said. “If they are, we need to keep doing those things and if not – we need to figure out what would work better.”
He also warned about Americans becoming desensitized to the use of pills in general, and said that “kids reach for pills in their grandmother’s medicine cabinet today like people did for a beer decades ago.”
“The facts are that four out of five individuals that do injection drugs started with pills,” he said.
St. Charles Police Cmdr. Chuck Pierce attended the forum, and said “the opioid issue is one of the largest problems our society is dealing with.”
“My hope is to learn more about what the federal government is doing and also what is working here in Illinois,” Pierce said.
Elburn’s Sarah Briley is a clinical director of Addiction Treatment at AMITA Health Alexian Brothers, and said that drug issues have increased dramatically in her career.
“I’ve been in this field 18 years, and there are at least 50 percent more cases now than when I first started,” Briley said. “The surgeon general is working to provide more access to care and as a result, people in local municipalities are finding treatment.”
Woodstock’s Rob Mutert said he was representing the non-profit group WARP Corps, a suicide and opioid addiction prevention group, and was also hoping to bring back more information about what was happening at the federal and state level.
“Information from the federal level is critical to have as we’re one of those organizations where the rubber meets the road,” Mutert said. “We’re very much in a reality-based position.”
U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Plano) sponsored the forum.
David Sharos is a freelance editor for The Beacon-News.
‘Life is better if you’re alive’
For the past three and a half weeks, the Woodstock Square has hosted a new business that seems, at first glance, a bit hard to define.
Walk into Warp Corps, in the former Lloyd’s Paint ’N Paper building at 114 N. Benton St., and you might think you’re in an “X Games”-era skate shop. If there’s an older man with a Merlin-esque beard behind the counter, he’ll tell you he’s Rob Mutert, former owner of the Warp Skate Park on Route 47 – and that this isn’t just a revival of that youth-favorite hangout; it’s a frontline headquarters for McHenry County’s battle against opioid addiction, substance abuse, and suicide.
Mutert, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, said Warp Corps came about both as a new chapter for Warp Skate Park and as a response to a community and nationwide crisis that had hit his own extended families – skateboarders and the military – especially hard.
“We had to close the park in 2010 because of the recession,” Mutert said. “Those were tough times in America. A couple years later in 2017, one of our skateboarders, a young man that grew up at Warp Skate Park, was serving in the Army, and he succumbed to suicide.
“It was a very, very sad day for me personally and for everybody who knew him. But through that process, it brought me back in connection with a lot of the skaters and their parents.”
‘What can I bring?’
Mutert said that when he started to catch up with former Warp Park regulars and their families, he got a “full dose” of just how serious the opioid epidemic in McHenry County had become.
“I was checking with parents and other skaters,” he said. “‘How’s Bill?’ ‘How’s Tom?’ ‘How’s Jim?’ – dead, dead, dead, rehab for the third time, prison, … and that was all I needed to hear.
“As a veteran myself, with 22 suicides a day in the veteran and military community, that was just unacceptable.”
Mutert said that 13 young people he had known from their childhood at the Warp Skate Park had died from overdosing on heroin or legal opioids.
“That yanked on my heartstrings like nothing ever has in my life,” he said. “I looked at the skill sets I had, the areas I’m good at, where I’ve worked with young people in the past, and I asked, What can I bring to these problems?”
Targeting ‘deaths of despair’
The answer, Mutert said, was the “big three – art, music, and adventure sports.”
Opioid, alcohol, heroin, and suicide deaths are collectively known as “deaths of despair,” and all of them have been on the rise dramatically in the U.S. over the past few decades.
The goal of Warp Corps, Mutert said, was to be the deaths-of-despair killers.” In the same way that early Americans had a vitality and pioneer spirit built on making new things and engaging physically with the world around them, Mutert agreed “absolutely” that he wanted Warp Corps to re-create that same spirit for the modern day.
Warp Corps has a full list of current and planned events, based around Mutert’s motto that “Life is better if you’re alive.”
So far, the group has held an opening-day concert with local musicians Karen Schook and Rotten Mouth, a music support group and workshop, a free yoga session at the neighboring Woodstock Yoga Lounge (founded by Mutert’s wife, Cara), a Narcan anti-overdose training session, and three “Cypher” programs – online-only art and music broadcasts filmed at the Warp Corps building and livestreamed on the group’s Facebook page (doors locked, and only that evening’s musicians allowed in; in other words, live music minus the live party).
To help both their fundraising and community recognition, Warp Corps has put a major emphasis on building itself as a brand. While the building has a large space for events and meetings in the back (and a “product-testing area” for skateboards downstairs), the front is something close to an extreme-sports boutique, with hoodies, T-shirts, hats, snow- and skateboards, and even Warp Corps’ own “Max Happy” coffee blend on offer.
Mutert said that the coffee, created with a roaster in Loves Park, is a “huge component” of the group’s funding mission. And aside from a few items, most of Warp Corps’ clothing and accessories are produced in-house as part of a workforce development program with the McHenry County Workforce Network.
Spreading the message
In the coming months, as the weather improves and Warp Corps builds its presence in McHenry County, the group plans to host hiking and nature trips; skating lessons; graphic design, film, and music-production classes; workforce training; and a military prep and awareness class; a yoga for recovery workshop at the Yoga Lounge; anti-bullying support; and additional training and awareness programs for drug and substance abuse.
This Friday, March 1, Warp Corps will hold its first “425 tour” to take its members and its message out to Chicagoland skateparks, kicking off at the Fargo Skatepark in DeKalb.
The number 425, Mutert said, is part of the Warp Corps brand. He explained that everyone knows the “international call-sign to ‘get high’ … ‘425’ is, ‘just stay alive.’”
It’s all part of a thoroughly Gen X approach to a crisis that the baby boomers, both conservative and liberal, have never really managed to get a handle on. As Mutert put it, Warp Corps has “no judgment or bias, no politics or religion.”
“We are Switzerland,” he said. “We have respect for anyone’s beliefs, political or religious. I have my beliefs, but that’s not what this venue is about.”
Instead of beating people over the head with an ideology, Mutert said, he wants to “beat them over the head with ‘Hey, let’s stay alive.’ Life is better if you’re alive.”
For more information, visit Warp Corps on Facebook and at http://www.warpcorps.org.