- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 25, 2001

STAFFORD, Va. (AP) Talsey Cunningham went from being a kid who preached against drugs to a drug addict, from a Stafford County sheriff's cadet to a jail inmate, from saving lives to the brink of death.
Mr. Cunningham, 20, said his life started all over again this month when he graduated from the Rappahannock Regional Drug Court.
"I believe you've done something I'm not sure I could have done myself," Stafford Circuit Judge Ann Hunter Simpson told him as he accepted hugs and handshakes from family and friends.
"It took true grit, and you should feel as proud as you've ever felt," the judge said.
Mr. Cunningham's short life has been nothing but drama.
He always wanted to be a Stafford deputy and joined the department's cadet program when he was 12. He rode in cruisers with his heroes as they delivered warrants, made drunken-driving arrests and broke up bar fights.
He also signed on with the Stafford County Volunteer Rescue Squad when he was 16.
But in February 1997, he was diagnosed with naspharyngeal cancer a rare and usually deadly disease. Doctors discovered a large tumor snaking behind his nose into his lymph nodes.
After painful surgery and months of radiation and chemotherapy, his cancer was in remission. But Mr. Cunningham was addicted to painkillers.
In May 1997, he overdosed on morphine prescribed for his cancer and went into cardiac arrest. Mr. Cunningham's friends at the rescue squad saved his life.
Then he let them down.
In February 2000, Mr. Cunningham was arrested after he was caught stealing three boxes full of morphine, Demerol and Valium from the squad. The deputies he idolized put him in handcuffs.
"It's something that I'll never, ever be able to even request forgiveness for," Mr. Cunningham said. "My deepest, sincerest apology goes to the Stafford Rescue Squad."
He faced nine felony counts of drug possession.
Miss Simpson offered Mr. Cunningham a deal: Go to drug court or go to jail.
He chose drug court. After 18 months of grueling drug treatment, therapy, a relapse and weekly trips to the courtroom of Fredericksburg Circuit Judge John W. Scott Jr., Mr. Cunningham finally turned himself around.
"This is yet another chance at life for me," Mr. Cunningham said during the Dec. 3 graduation. "I don't know how I can ever thank everyone enough."
Stafford Sheriff Charles Jett sat in the front row for the courtroom ceremony to show his support.
Mr. Jett's assistant, Rhonda Mastin, was up there, too. She lost her daughter to drugs four years ago and has taken Mr. Cunningham under her wing. She cried as he spoke at the graduation.
"Talsey, I love you, and I'm so proud of you," she said afterward. "Death was never an option for you."
Mr. Cunningham was one of six to graduate from the regional drug court.
The program, one of the nation's first regional drug courts, was started in September 1999 with a $450,000 federal grant. It offers nonviolent, felony drug offenders substance-abuse treatment and the opportunity to have charges against them dismissed if they finish the program successfully.
All of the charges against Mr. Cunningham have been dropped, and he said he's ready to get on with his life.
He took his SATs recently and has applied to the University of West Virginia, where he plans to study structural engineering.
His cancer remains in remission. And he wants to rejoin the fire department.
"I want to help people," he said. "I want to give others the chances that have been given to me."

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