Alcoholism, drugs, and a passion for fitness? How one veteran overcame addiction, and helps others do the same

Matt Saintsing
July 26, 2018 - 4:40 pm

Photo Courtesy of Richard Kaufman

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Richard Kaufman's first couple of years in the military were so turbulent that he fell into a spiral of alcoholism and drug use, earning him a one-way trip out of the Army after just two years on active duty.  Ultimately though he retired from the National Guard after a 24 year career.

Drinking heavily isn’t exactly unheard of in the Army, but Kaufman took it to another level. He's an alcoholic. He also took a liking to lysergic acid diethylamide, also known as acid or LSD. 

Kaufman, 49, first enlisted in the Army in 1986 and signed up to be a tanker, but shortly reclassified to a cavalry scout. Kaufman says he began drinking at 12-years-old, but it was at Fort Hood, Texas, his first duty station, where he says he "learned to drink professionally" and "get hooked on acid.” 

Photo Courtesy of Richard Kaufman

Today, it might seem absolutely insane for soldiers to casually drop acid a few times a month, but it was a problem of the times. A 1985 Defense Department survey of health-related behavior among the military found that about 9 percent of all service members had used an illegal drug in the past 30 days. 

“Pretty much every other weekend, if I wasn’t in the field, I was either drinking or drugging,” says Kaufman. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he was chaptered out of the Army in 1988, receiving an Other Than Honorable discharge for “non-conforming to military standards.” 

Little did he know that essentially being told he wasn’t cut out for the Army would set him on a path to recovery and healing, but not before a run-in with the law. 

His first job after getting out of the Army was at a bar in New Jersey that his friend owned. After just a few months on the job, he was asked to work on New Year’s Eve, easily one of the most lucrative nights of the year for any establishment selling booze. Kaufman jumped at the opportunity to get a big payday, but as an active alcoholic, he was drinking on the job. A lot. 

So much, in fact, that instead of depositing the $5,000 in cash at the bank, he stole it. “I was just so drunk that I took all of the money,” he says. The bar owner, who was also a police officer, by the way, gave him an ultimatum: either go to jail or start going to meetings.

Kaufman opted for the ladder, and attended 90 meetings in 90 days, enough to make anyone’s head spin. And it worked—he hasn’t had a drink or taken any illegal drugs since. 

Photo Courtesy of Richard Kaufman

By the early 90’s, he had been sober for a few years and had his life on track. That’s when he decided that he didn’t get enough of what the Army had to offer and enlisted as an infantryman, this time in the National Guard. 

He served in the New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina state Guards until 2012 when a freak accident ended his military career for good. Kaufman was helping one of his friends park an up-armored Humvee as a ground guide, a task nearly every soldier performs.

But in this case, the driver thought he was stepping on the breaks when he actually slammed his foot on the gas, running over Kaufman’s entire right side of his body. The accident left him blind in his left eye, but he survived, a detail Kaufman says was possible because he was wearing a Kevlar helmet. 

“The Army said, if you can’t shoot a gun, we can’t keep you,” adds Kaufman. “I would have done 30 years if I didn’t get hurt.” 

So, in 2012 he left the Army for good. 

Fitness has always a big part of Kaufman’s life, even when he was struggling with addiction. Today, he manages a GNC store in New Jersey where he helps other veterans who either want to get back in shape or battling those same demons he was able to fight off. 

And he does it primarily on social media. Kaufman is a proud member of Vetrepreneur Tribe, a Facebook groups that bills itself as, “the World’s Largest Community of Military Veteran Entrepreneurs to EVER exist!” 

Kaufman goes on Facebook live every Friday, sometimes from the GNC if it's slow, for what he calls “Fitness Fridays” where he touches on everything from diabetes, to nutrition, to weightlifting, and yes, even mental health care. And the results speak for themselves, he's helped several of his veteran friends, including one who Kaufman helped shed more than 40 pounds.

“I just want to get veterans healthy again, in any way possible,” says Kaufman. “Especially guys that are dealing with (post-traumatic-stress and traumatic brain injury), and any kind of addiction issues,” something he is intimately familiar with. 

It’s gotten to the point where when any of the nearly 14,000-strong Facebook group members post anything about addiction, recovery, weight loss, or other wellness, the Tribe will tag him in it, asking for Kaufman to weigh in with his expertise. Andrew O'Brien, founder of Vetrepreneur Tribe, says, "Richard is the most involved Tribe member we have." 

"He is always coming in and providing advice and value to the other members." 

But Kaufman stresses that he isn’t seeking a profit, but instead just wants to help his brothers and sisters in arms. “I just wanted to pay it forward ever since I got clean,” says Kaufman. 

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