Compelled to Lead
David Fridovich's Story of Painkillers, Football, and Leadership
By Adriana Colindres
A couple of years ago, Lieutenant General David Fridovich '74 -- then deputy commander of U.S. Special Operations Command -- arranged a meeting with the Army vice chief of staff, a four-star general, to discuss three matters. Two of them were relatively routine, involving personnel and finances.
"The third thing I wanted to tell him was my story about physical dependency on pain meds," Fridovich, a three-star general, recalled of his conversation with General Peter Chiarelli. "He and I had never met, and his jaw was just on the table."
"He's just looking at me and going, 'Wow. What can I do for you?' I said, 'Nothing. I'm OK now. But this is a serious problem.'"
A Serious Problem
Not long afterward, Chiarelli called Fridovich to ask for a favor -- a big one. He had just heard another high-ranking military officer describe a similar experience of painkiller dependency and wanted to know if Fridovich would be willing to go public with his story.
"I just gasped," recalled Fridovich. "I said, ‘Let me ask you a question: If I go public, will it help soldiers?'"
The answer was yes. If soldiers in a similar situation knew about "a three-star special operator who had this problem," they'd be more likely to seek assistance for themselves, Chiarelli said recently, describing the conversation with Fridovich.
Fridovich made his decision. "I said, ‘Then aren't I compelled to do it? If I'm a senior leader, and I've sworn to give my life to whatever and whomever, then shouldn't I be compelled to help soldiers in any way I can?'"
As a leader, he added, "You're not there for you. You lead soldiers. You help soldiers. You empower them. [You're thinking,] 'What can I do to make their lives better? What can I do to enrich them? What can I do to help them be better soldiers?'"
Fridovich spoke out, and his story made national headlines in early 2011, most prominently in USA Today. He was willing to talk about his drug dependency because he believed that many others in the military were quietly enduring the same problem. The issue deserved more attention, he thought, and drug-dependent soldiers deserved more help.
It was -- and remains -- an unusual subject for such a high-ranking, distinguished military officer to discuss openly. Yet this approach is emblematic of Fridovich's leadership style. He aims to help others and lead by example.
Fridovich's disclosure of his struggle came shortly after an Army surgeon general task force said doctors were handing out addictive pain relievers too freely and shortly before an internal Army investigation report revealed a significant drug-dependency problem in special units for wounded, ill, and injured soldiers, according to the USA Today article.
His reliance on pain medicine developed after a severe back injury he suffered while training. This injury, together with years of physical activity, training, and deployments-including several hundred parachute jumps-left him unable to use his left leg due to acute neurological and skeletal damage. He was in command of Special Operations in the Pacific at the time. Experiencing severe, chronic back pain because of these work-related activities, he sought relief from prescribed medication, including the opioids Oxycontin and Roxicet.
"Painkillers are good for two weeks to about six weeks. Then you have to come off of them," he said. "If not, part of your brain gets re-wired chemically and says, ‘Oh. I'm going to induce the pain so I can get the painkillers.' Well, I was on painkillers from May 2006 until February 2008."
The drugs changed him. Though he continued working, at one point he "completely lost track of" about eight days-a piece of information he learned later from his wife, Katherine Kodl Fridovich '76.
"I went from [weighing] 185 pounds to 160-some pounds. I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep. I was just in pain," Fridovich said. "What you find out is, the more you use, the less they work. You get saturated."
He reduced his dosages of pain medicine and, later, a neurosurgeon at Walter Reed Army Center "cleaned up" his back to lessen the pain. After that, Fridovich "went to detox and went through withdrawal."
Fridovich said he still experiences chronic back pain, which likely will worsen with time. Doctors have put him on different, less potent medicine that eases the discomfort but leaves him clear-headed. Regular exercise also is a crucial component of his pain management. He typically spends 60 to 90 minutes a day on strength training and cardiovascular fitness with a regimen that includes stretching, bicycling, and water resistance.
"People have told me it's courageous" to talk publicly about the dependency on painkillers, Fridovich said. "I don't know. I think it was necessary. I think maybe it's important. I don't necessarily believe it's courageous. Getting off the stuff was courageous and difficult."
Fridovich's character was apparent during his time at Knox, according to faculty members who knew him well then and have kept in touch over the years. To Harley Knosher, Fridovich's forthrightness is no surprise. Before retiring in 2000, Knosher served as Knox athletics director for more than 30 years, including the early 1970s, when Fridovich played linebacker for the football team.
"What it tells me about David is what I've always known about him, which is that the Honor Code was simple for him because he's a totally honorable guy," said Knosher, who also was an assistant football coach at the time. "On that basis, when it came time to say some things that were not simple to say, were not necessarily complimentary of him or his organization, you can believe he'd be the one guy who would say them because he's an honest guy."
Right around the time that Fridovich earned his bachelor's degree in 1974, Knosher recalled, he referred to the young man as "the finest undergraduate leader I had ever seen at Knox."
"Of course, there were many years to go in my career at that time," Knosher said. "Certainly some outstanding young people came along, but no one ever excelled David as far as undergraduate leadership is concerned."
That assessment, he added, is based on having watched Fridovich in "a football program that, when he entered it [in 1970], was about as down and out as it could possibly be." From 1960 through 1969, the Knox football team compiled a win-loss record of 8-70, with three tie games.
Fridovich, also a member of Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity, had a positive impact on his fellow student-athletes and everyone connected with the program "because of his unrelenting commitment to the fact that we were going to be good," Knosher said.
Fridovich served as captain of the football team his senior year. At the end of the season, he was chosen Most Valuable Senior, and the team's record was 6-2-1.
Looking back, a 37-year Army career wasn't exactly what Fridovich had in mind for himself when he arrived on the Knox College campus as a first-year student.
During most of his time at Knox, Fridovich figured he'd eventually work as a football coach and high school teacher, but those plans changed. He completed a one-year Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program at Knox and attended a basic training camp in Fort Knox, Kentucky, during the summer between his junior and senior years. He liked it so much he decided to switch gears and join the military.
First, though, he wanted to get a master's degree-a lofty goal for him at the time.
"I was a lousy student," Fridovich, an international relations major, says now. "I had enough of a grade-point to maintain eligibility to play football."
He went to Robert Seibert, his academic advisor and Robert W. Murphy Professor of Political Science, and told him: "I know I'm not much of a student, but I really want to go to grad school. I realize that I really love learning. And if I don't do it now, when I have this energy and passion and intensity, it's not going to happen."
Seibert's response is etched in Fridovich's memory. "He kicks back, and he says, ‘I've been watching you for the better part of three years.' He says, and these are words I'll never forget, ‘You are a diamond in the rough.'"
With Seibert's help, Fridovich wound up as a graduate student at Tulane University-the same place where Seibert had earned his master's degree and doctorate. Fridovich's academic performance improved dramatically.
"I think I had either one B-plus or two B-pluses [during the two-year program]. All the rest were As," he said. "What it really meant to me was that I hadn't soiled [Seibert's] reputation, and that was important."
A Lifetime of Service
General David Fridovich '74 retired in November 2011 after more than 37 years in the U.S. Army. At that point, he was the senior Green Beret in the Army. Throughout the course of his military career, he served as commander at every level: platoon, company, battalion, Special Forces Group, Special Operations Task Force, and Theater Special Operations Command.
Fridovich commanded counterterrorism forces all over the world, completing assignments in Korea, Haiti, Bosnia, The Philippines, and the United States. He commanded Special Forces units in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, in 2000, and was instrumental in leading counterterrorist forces in The Philippines. He also served in various operational staff positions, including assistant professor of military sciences at Norwich University.
At Fridovich's retirement ceremony, retired Admiral Eric T. Olson, former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, praised Fridovich as "a man of action, whose operational excellence in many of the most remote, complex places on Earth earned him the ungrudging respect of his teams, his bosses, and his international colleagues."
In addition to his bachelor's degree from Knox College, he has a master's degree from Tulane University. He has studied at the U.S. Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and at the British Forces Royal College of Defense Studies in London, England. He was presented with a Knox Alumni Achievement Award in 2007.
Fridovich maintains an active pace. A member of the Knox College Board of Trustees, he also is director of the Gemunder Center for Defense & Strategies at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, distinguished senior fellow at the Institute of Physical Science, senior advisor at CENTRA Technology, and a member of the board of advisors at The Sierra Institute.
Seibert recently described Fridovich as "a true natural leader" whose presence, seriousness, and credibility communicated easily with his peers and, later, with his subordinates.
"His military career is well-documented and very distinguished," Seibert added. "Dave set operational standards in counterterrorism and insurgency suppression and for a wide range of programs in ‘special operations.'"
At Fridovich's retirement ceremony in November 2011, the speakers included retired Navy Admiral Eric T. Olson, former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, and Navy Admiral William McRaven, the current commander.
Fridovich's "legacy as a Green Beret is unmatched-he is a leader in the Army culture that values great warriors and equally great thinkers," McRaven said, according to Tip of the Spear, a publication of U.S. Special Operations Command.
Olson referred to Fridovich as "a strategic thinker who understands the importance of nuance and context, a strong leader, sets high standards and convinces people they can achieve them," Tip of the Spear reported.
Fridovich attributes his success as a military leader, in large part, to his days as a Knox student.
His Knox education provided the foundation for his work in political development and institutional development in the Third World, Fridovich said. "As soon as I put on a Green Beret and deployed to The Philippines or Thailand, I used it," he said. "We were interfacing with a country team at embassies in Manila and in Bangkok. We were working with other people's militaries. You saw things that you knew about because the education was so classic here."
The biggest lesson he learned from people at Knox, he says, was consistency. That's important, especially for a leader who must know how to deal with people and with adversity.
"When you went to see Seibert, you got the same guy every day. When you went to see Harley, you got the same guy every day."
"They were all like that," Fridovich said. "If you're bringing them bad news, you know what you're going to get. If you're bringing them great news, you know what you're going to get. If they ask you something, they genuinely want to know. We truly had an open dialogue."
Even though he is now retired from the military, Fridovich continues to share his story of overcoming painkiller dependency.
In October 2012, for instance, he traveled to Augusta, Georgia, to deliver a keynote speech -- titled "Challenges & Opportunities with an Integrated Approach to Warrior Care" -- at the Second Augusta Research Symposium on Advances in Warrior Care.
Fridovich said that when he speaks at such gatherings, he hopes the patients and caregivers in the audience take away a couple of key messages. "One, there are no quick fixes. It takes a real commitment on the patient's side and the caregiver's side. You've got to be open to a variety of different treatment plans and regimes that are going to get you there."
"The second thing is, be open to other integrative practices of medicine," such as acupuncture and yoga. "Western medicine doesn't have all the answers."
And finally, he encourages people to seek help when they need it. "Worry less about the stigma," he said. "Think about your family, think about yourself, think about your future, think about what you're going to become again -- and then go after that. And have a network [family, friends, and professional colleagues] that supports it. I always talk about how I didn't do this by myself."
The October symposium was planned and organized by several organizations, including the Augusta Warrior Project. Jim Lorraine, the project's director, said that Fridovich's first-hand experience of struggling with and overcoming painkiller dependency has "helped inspire the individual soldier and service member."
"They see he can do it, so they can do it, too," said Lorraine, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. "He leads from the front."
One of the people attending the Augusta symposium, and another keynote speaker there, was now-retired General Peter Chiarelli, the man who a couple of years earlier had asked Fridovich to go public with his story.
After hearing Fridovich speak at the symposium, Chiarelli got up from his seat.
"He came up to me," Lorraine recalled, "and said: That guy is the bravest man I've ever met."
Chiarelli, in a separate interview, praised Fridovich for epitomizing "the values that we hold so dear in the military," especially loyalty to soldiers.
"There are soldiers all over the country and the world who will bring him up as an example...that when you've got these issues, there's no shame in going in and getting help, like he did," said Chiarelli, now chief executive officer of the nonprofit organization One Mind for Research. "It'll have a huge impact in the future."
"I don't think I've ever seen an act of leadership any greater than him doing what he did," Chiarelli said. "I really mean that."