Sergeant's Mission: Wean Veterans off Painkillers


Retired U.S. Army Sgt. Justin Minyard dug through smoldering rubble for survivors after the 9-11 attack at the Pentagon, escorted Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and conducted special-ops interrogations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But the decorated 13-year veteran believes his civilian mission may be the most important service he has ever performed for his country.

Minyard, 33, a native Texan who moved to Orlando more than a year ago, founded and directs "Operation Shifting Gears," a not-for-profit organization that helps disabled combat veterans recover from physical and psychological wounds of war without relying on addictive prescription painkillers.

"No veteran should have to struggle for as long as I did," said Minyard, who described himself as a recovering addict of "opioid therapy": powerful pills that were prescribed for back pain by Veterans Affairs and Defense Department doctors. "I know there are other men and women like me out there."

Earlier this month, Minyard, who was medically retired by the Army in March, testified before a congressional panel looking into complaints that VA doctors over-prescribe oxycodone, morphine and other pain medications to the nation's wounded and retired troops.

He said drugs were the only option made available to him for pain.

"My life revolved around, 'when is my next pill ... when can I get my next refill,'" Minyard recalled in his testimony to a U.S. House of Representatives Veterans Affairs subcommittee on health. "At my worst point, I was taking enough pills a day to treat four terminally ill cancer patients."

At the same hearing, Dr. Robert Jesse, a high-ranking official with the Veterans Health Administration, testified that the VA is working to improve education and training on pain therapies for veterans, a population, he stressed, that suffers higher rates of chronic pain than the civilian population.

Minyard first hurt his back in 2001 at the Pentagon, lifting file cabinets, desks and concrete chunks of walls in the search for survivors after hijacked Flight 77 slammed into the building. He was assigned at the time to Fort Myer, just 5 miles away, as a member of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment. It was a unit known as The Old Guard, which represents soldiers in ceremonies and is the official military escort to the president.

After back surgery, he deployed to the Middle East. He reinjured his back in combat missions but continued serving with the help of cortisone injections and pain pills. Minyard finally collapsed in 2008 after a grueling three-day mission and was sent home from Iraq for good.

Back home, he was given OxyContin, Vicodin and a fentanyl patch for the crippling pain. He said he lived in a prescription fog.

A videotape of his daughter's third birthday shows her bringing him a gift to open.

"I couldn't even get the wrapping off," he said.

With his wife, Amy, as his advocate, Minyard sought an alternative therapy for his back pain. A device was implanted in his spine to short-circuit pain impulses to his brain, a procedure that offered him some non-narcotic relief and a chance to rebuild his life with his wife and daughter, MacKenzie.

Although in a wheelchair and still using pain pills, he was introduced to cycling by a veterans-support group.

His first ride was on a "recumbent" bike in which he pedaled while lying face up. He rode 20 miles with the help of other vets.

"It became a way for me to break through barriers," Minyard said. "Every mile helped me realize that I could accomplish something again. I started to think, 'I can.'"

Minyard said he has not taken a pain pill in two years.

In 2011, he was one of 20 wounded U.S. military vets who participated in a six-day, 240-mile ride through Europe to visit historic World War II sites. Minyard often rides the West Orange Trail and hills surrounding Clermont, training for the upcoming "Horrible Hundred," next month's 100-mile bicycle ride in Lake County, which includes a climb up Sugarloaf Mountain, the highest point in peninsular Florida.

His fledgling Operation Shifting Gears, which emphasizes challenging physical group activity such as long-distance bicycling as a means for an injured veteran to "recover better, faster and healthier," operates on donations and all-veteran volunteers, including Minyard, who serves as its president.

"We're not saying, 'You ride with us and kick all your drugs,'" said Dan Cooper, a Tampa chiropractor and Army buddy of Minyard's who volunteers with the group. "But this is a start, a physical way to be with other veterans and a kind of thing you can use to decrease your pharmaceutical load."

Sam Mortimer, an active Marine who first met Minyard during a veterans ride, said his friend wants to help vets help themselves.

"There's a saying, 'We've spilled the same blood in the same mud,'" said Mortimer, 37, a chief warrant officer who served three tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan during his 19-year career with the Marine Corps. "The idea around OSG is that we can understand and help one another."

Minyard will head a group of veterans associated with Operation Shifting Gears on a ride this weekend in South Carolina with George Hincapie, a retired professional cyclist who raced in the Tour de France 17 times and was part of nine winning teams, the most ever.

As he prepared to leave Orlando, Minyard packed two bikes that were specially adapted for disabled veterans who will join them for the first time.

"A huge part of my recovery happened on a bike," he said. "We might push them, literally, if they feel they can't go any further, but they're going to be doing it themselves. I'm just trying to help."

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