After 23 years of addiction, 'Mom Dukes' now helps veterans survive

Jodi Savits, who directs Fresh Start transitional housing and supportive services for male veterans with drug and mental health issues at the Coatesville Veterans Affairs Medical Center, gets a hug from Army combat vet Jeffrey R. Jones, who affectionately calls her his “Mom Dukes.”

Jeffrey R. Jones, an Army combat veteran who has struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder and drug addiction since serving in the second Gulf War, embraced Jodi Savits — his Fresh Start counselor, friend, lifeline — in a heartfelt bear hug and said, “She’s my Mom Dukes.”

“I get teased a lot,” Savits said.

“You can go to her and feel that motherly love,” Jones said, not teasing at all, honoring Savits in urban slang as the neighbor who watches over all the kids on the block as if they were her own. “She’s a mother to us. We are all her children. Just to know she’s there, you feel OK.”

Jones, 56, lives at the Coatesville Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where Savits directs the 40-bed Fresh Start transitional recovery home for male veterans with substance abuse and mental health issues. Savits helped 156 veterans last year, and recently won a 2017 Voice Award from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Jones isn’t surprised.

Savits, 52, is not a military veteran. She has never been in combat and has never experienced PTSD. But Jones trusts her as if she fought alongside him in Iraq, because she has fought alongside him in his personal battles with depression and has never let him down.

Jones also trusts that Savits knows what he is going through. She told him about being addicted to drugs and alcohol for 23 years, beginning in high school and ending in 2000, when she attempted to commit suicide in Philadelphia by swallowing 100 pills of Xanax, her anti-anxiety medication.

“I had been in an abusive relationship and wound up in intensive care,” Savits said. “Afterwards, I was hiding from the man, staying with a friend because I had nowhere else to go. I had no car. I’d lost my job. My three children had been taken away from me. I didn’t know where they were. My life was spiraling downhill.” So she tried to end it.

Savits would have succeeded if her friend hadn’t come home earlier than expected and found her, barely coherent enough to tell him what she’d done. He called 911. At Nazareth Hospital, Savits said, “I ripped all the tubes out. I didn’t want them to save me.” The staff restrained her and pumped out her stomach.

Camera icon JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Jodi Savits, Fresh Start director of transitional housing and supportive services for men with drug and mental health issues at the Coatesville Veterans Affairs Medical Center, struggled with addiction for 23 years before beginning her long-term recovery in 2000. She tells her story to the veterans she works with and they trust her because of what she’s been through, and how much she wants to help them get through it, too.

After being treated for depression at Friends Hospital, Savits found a Fresh Start recovery house on Frankford Avenue in Philadelphia, where she began three years of clean-and-sober living that led to 10 years as director of the women’s recovery program there. Since 2013, she’s been directing the male veterans program at the Coatesville VA, one of two such facilities in Chester County along with 11 Fresh Start centers for men and women in Philadelphia, 295 beds in all. They have served 12,000 people, two-thirds of them veterans, since the organization was founded in 1989.

Christopher Miller, 33, an Iraq War Army veteran who has struggled with heroin addiction, said, “Jodi may not have been in combat, but her addiction put her in a rough situation. She’s been through it. That breeds trust. I learned to love Jodi. She’s come from the bottom, and look at her now.”

Savits smiled and said, “If I can do it, anyone can do it.”

Jones said Savits helped him deal with PTSD. “You have moments when you have intrusive thoughts and fears, and they’re real. I tend to get real anxious real fast. I go from zero to 100 without even thinking. When I came to Coatesville, my mom had passed, my brother and sister were gone, and I was in search of someone. Jodi taught me to stop and go, ‘Whoosah.’”

Jones closed his eyes, breathed calmly and slowly said, “Whoosah.”

“It’s from meditation,” Jones said.

Miller laughed and said, “It’s also from Bad Boys II,” citing the Will Smith/Martin Lawrence cop buddy movie where the exclamation “Whoosah!” accomplishes a range of therapeutic benefits.

Camera icon JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Jodi Savits (left)  meets with Jeffrey R. Jones (center) and other combat veterans at a new Fresh Start center in North Philadelphia.

Savits said Jones lived at the Coatesville Fresh Start program three years ago, got clean and sober, then moved into his own place in town. “Unfortunately, he moved into an area that wasn’t a good place for his recovery,” she said. Jones managed to remain clean there for three years, then recently came back to live at the Coatesville VA Fresh Start. “He pulled himself out of a bad situation,” Savits said, crediting Jones with wisely returning to a safe haven before he fell back into addiction.

Jones said that, like the other veterans in the Coatesville program, he always looks forward to sitting down and talking with Savits because she knows that, despite the ups and downs of addiction and depression, “we’re good guys. We have good hearts.”

Jones said he was proud of the 4,000 hours he’s spent volunteering in after-school arts-and-crafts and recreation programs with Coatesville fifth graders.

Savits smiled warmly at Jones and said her approach to directing the men’s program is and always will be hands-on. “I walk around the building, go into the community room and out back to the smoking area,” she said. “I don’t hide in the office. My boss yells at me all the time, ‘You never answer your phone!’ I say, ‘That’s because I’m not in my office.’”

Savits defines herself as a person in long-term recovery, available 24/7 to help the veterans who need her, no matter how many years they’ve struggled with substance abuse and mental health issues.

“I think there’s hope for anybody,” she said. “It’s a matter of finding the best way for each individual to get there. If you have diabetes, you can do x, y and z to keep the diabetes under control. Addiction is not like that. Years pass. Time’s like a blur. You don’t even realize you’re getting so far sucked in that you get to a point where you don’t know what to do anymore.”

Savits reached that point. And then, miraculously, her life changed because caring people helped her when she didn’t know how to help herself. “You have to find a purpose,” she said. “If people don’t find a purpose, they don’t hold on.”