- Associated Press - Saturday, June 30, 2018

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (AP) - Brandon Renner’s military photo shows a youthful innocence and the promise of things to come.

He was three months shy of his 20th birthday when he joined the military in December 2007. A graduate of Massaponax High School, Renner always wanted to be a policeman and signing on to the Coast Guard, which touts itself as the nation’s first line of defense against drug smugglers, seemed the best way to get there.

Renner eventually got exposure to drugs and deputies, but not in the way he’d dreamed. Instead of trying to stop the spread of illegal substances, the veteran got hooked on them.

His downward spiral started with a back injury suffered in the service, followed by narcotic painkillers prescribed by a military doctor. When the recommended dosage didn’t cut it, Renner doubled up on the Percocet. Then, he added Oxycodone to the mix, bought from friends or on the street, and took enough to ease the suffering of a cancer patient.

That led Renner to the drug he swore he’d never do.

“Everybody thinks heroin’s the most disgusting thing out there, even the name sounds nasty,” Renner said. “But friends kept coming around, saying, ‘You gotta try this. It’s cheaper than pills and it lasts longer.’

“You try it once, and it’s a wrap,” he said.

Unlike so many others whose addictions end in cemeteries, Renner survived - but not without a lot of pain, suffering and damage to his close-knit family. He went through four rehab programs, swearing each time that he was done with drugs.

He lost the trust of those who’d brought him into the world, and they spent almost $25,000 on treatments that didn’t help. Renner declared bankruptcy, got charged with four counts of drug possession and spent two months in jail.

Then, when he’d finally had enough, Renner enrolled in a year-long, court-supervised program, which filled his days with group meetings and therapy, random urine screenings and court appearances.

Six years after he first doubled up on pain pills, he got on the other side of drugs. Family members were able to see “the old Brandon again,” and Renner reveled in the way his life changed.

“It’s 110 percent different,” he said. “I look forward to going to family gatherings. I work and still have most of the money I earned in the bank five days later. I don’t dread waking up every morning, worrying about trying to find a new fix.

“It’s night and day, without a doubt.”

Now 30, Renner agreed to share his story in hopes of helping someone else.

“People out there don’t see any hope or possibility, they just hear on the news about death after death and think that that’s pretty much the only one way after addiction,” he said. “Surprisingly, it doesn’t have to end like that.”

Still, the numbers are grim. Every day, more than 115 people in America die from opioid overdoses, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse.

Planning District 16, which includes Fredericksburg and the counties of Caroline, King George, Spotsylvania and Stafford, is hardly exempt. At least 359 people died from opioid-related deaths in 2017, according to preliminary reports from the Virginia Department of Health.

Add the counties of Culpeper, Orange and Westmoreland, and the damage from legal and illegal substances meant to relieve pain by producing morphine-like results climbed to 529 deaths in 2017.

A decade earlier, when Renner was on his way to becoming a Coastie, there were 25 opioid-related fatalities in the region.

Renner was the product of parents who stayed close, even after they divorced when he was 5. He grew up under the watchful eye of a mom and two dads - biological parents Rich Renner of Spotsylvania and Renee Parker of King George, and her husband, Charlie Parker.

Family events typically included all eight children of the three adults. The kids did well academically and played sports, volunteered or kept busy with work, as Renner did. He got a job at 16 so he could buy a car.

All three parents had served in the Navy and worked at the Dahlgren base. They groomed the next generation for success.

Renner was the second-oldest of the combined group, but his mother’s first and his father’s only son. He was eager to please and often became the teacher’s pet because he did what was asked of him, his father said.

“He was our boy, never in trouble,” the dad added.

Renner never even smoked a joint as a teenager.

He was so easygoing and funny - and kind to a fault - that his mother’s biggest concern was friends taking advantage of him.

Renner’s first two and a half years in the service were great, and the man whose classmates called him “Bird” enjoyed assignments in Yorktown and Cape May, N.J.

He became a boatswain’s mate, one who trained boot camp graduates how to navigate without running aground or execute a search pattern for someone in distress.

There wasn’t any one injury, but the cumulative effect of lifting and yanking, hauling and pulling left Renner in pain. He couldn’t pick up anything heavy, sit in class for extended periods or even lie in bed too long without discomfort.

A visit to the base clinic led to X-rays, which led to injections and physical therapy, more scans and chiropractor visits. He was sent to Army specialists, who diagnosed soft tissue muscle damage in his back.

The commanding officer at the Yorktown Training Center submitted a letter “with much regret” to the medical board in March 2010. Cmdr. T.W. Rinoski wrote that Petty Officer Renner “has developed a condition that has significantly impacted his performance of duty, to which there appears to be no medical resolution.”

The Coast Guard offered a medical discharge about six months before the end of his four-year stint, but Renner’s law-enforcement friends told him not to take it. Tough it out, they said, or you’ll never get onto a police force.

Renner hung in there and got his honorable discharge in December 2011.

Within six months, he started self-medicating, far exceeding the “use as prescribed” recommendation for pain pills. If he skipped the medicine for a day or two, in an effort to stop, his whole body ached, from his neck to his legs.

“I knew this wasn’t normal,” he said. “I didn’t know how bad it was then, but I knew it was gonna cause me some kind of trouble because I couldn’t stop taking it.”


Information from: The Free Lance-Star, http://www.fredericksburg.com/

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