Almost 15 years ago, Bartow native Zach Choate joined the United States military.
Now 35, he recalls enlisting on a whim.
“I didn’t really consult anyone about it, I kept it pretty much in private,” he said. “Of course, I used the justification of fighting terrorism, which at that point in time — in hindsight — is like, I should’ve done my homework.”
The Cass High graduate was attending classes at Shorter University, then Shorter College, in Rome.
“I guess I kind of felt like a young, lost kid, lacking some discipline and some structure,” he recollected. “I did well in school, I excelled in school, I was an athlete and all of that, but I just felt like my life was lacking some kind of purpose at that time.”
From there, he relocated to Fort Drum in New York, where he underwent training to become a scout in the Army’s 10th Mountain Division.
Just three months into deployment, he was sent to the “Triangle of Death” — a region south of Baghdad in Iraq infamous for sectarian violence.
“It was with the initial surge and I’d say about two or three months after I had gotten into Iraq, I was hit by a roadside bomb,” he recollected. “I got pretty banged up and spent some time in the hospital … so that was pretty traumatic.”
To this day, he said he has difficulty recalling the specifics of the incident — “just little flashes that’ll come to me.”
Yet despite being medically sidelined for nine months, it wasn’t long before the Purple Heart recipient returned to the war-ravaged nation.
“There was a lot of urban fighting at that point, so there was a lot of door-to-door, no-knock raids, basically,” he recalled. “On the other side of that door, generally, nine times out of 10, was just an innocent family sleeping … the way that we just came in and did that — and I can’t tell you how many families that we would do that to, just doing our job — you more or less felt like a terrorist, in a sense.”
While Choate said he didn’t see much drug use in the military first-hand, he nonetheless knew that it was happening.
“You would hear that they had popped hot on a urine analysis after the deployment,” he recounted. “But from what I gather, some of these people, they came in with prior issues, and this was something that they were going to continue to do, regardless of the job or penalty.”
Far more prevalent, he said, was rampant — and untreated — alcoholism.
“We were in a highly deployed unit,” he recollected, “so in our downtime, that was a way to relax and let go, I guess.”
Choate left the military in November 2008 — the height of the Great Recession.
He said readjustment to civilian life was extremely difficult.
“I was just a different person then, and I had a hard time relaying who I was to family members, and they had a hard time understanding who I was,” he said. “It was just constant butting heads, trying to express this new me to other people.”
Amidst a torrent of emotions — anger, confusion, a sense of rejection from the community — coupled with the psychological aftermath of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Choate slowly began a downward spiral into substance abuse.
His dependency issues began via legitimate use of pharmaceuticals prescribed from Veterans Affairs (VA) physicians — “Benzos, downers and things to help concentration,” Choate said.
Gripped in the throes of loneliness and isolation, he soon began using “higher things that weren’t prescribed.”
Hydrocodone. Roxicodone. “Then it went to the ultimate opioid,” he said, “the big H.”
The drugs became “a safe zone,” Choate recounted.
“I would never imagine myself being an addict to any degree, and neither could anybody who ever knew me,” he said. “I was just using to feel normal. It wasn’t even filling that void anymore — I felt like I almost needed it to survive.”
Choate said he knew that his mother could tell something was wrong. And it was seeing her pain that ultimately inspired him to take the first step towards recovery.
“I became more and more withdrawn, I just stopped fighting that fight of trying to get close to anybody anymore,” he said. “Once I could see the hurt in her, I started to see that there was really a problem.”
Then, one day, he asked his mother to come with him for a visit with a VA therapist. It was there that he came clean about his struggles with substance dependency — “and started to find a way to get out of it,” he recounted.
Choate said he began his journey to sobriety in March 2014. After a relapse in 2017, he said he’s been clean for the last two years and counting.
After returning from the military, he traveled around the country. While he didn’t spend much time in Bartow during those years, when he did he said it wasn’t difficult at all to find high-powered opioids.
“If there’s someone with a back pain or some way to find a shady doctor, there’s always going to be that supply,” he said. “You can see the effects of it throughout the community. It’s definitely got a face, and I can see it as a past addict, I can see it in their eyes a lot.”
When it comes to substance abuse, he said the local community is hardly any different than San Francisco, San Diego, Miami or downtown Atlanta.
“Anything you want,” he said, “you can probably find here in Bartow.”
In many respects, Choate considers himself lucky. Unlike many individuals who succumb to substance abuse, he was never arrested or faced any legal repercussions for his drug use. Nor did he have a spouse or child suffering through his struggles.
Yet he still sees scores of people in the local community dealing with those hard consequences of substance dependency.
“We know there’s a problem, we’ve seen drug busts here in the community. We know it’s trafficked down 75,” he said. “A lot of times, when people get caught up in this addiction stuff and they go through the jail system, I think punishment isn’t necessarily the way to go about it sometimes.”
As for how entrenched the substance abuse epidemic is in Bartow, Choate said its impact isn’t just far-reaching — it’s practically a universal experience.
“It touches people in the highest places, whether it’s a cousin, a nephew, a niece, a brother, a sister,” he said. “It touches everybody.”
He said he believes one of the first steps the community can take to address its substance use issue is to get rid of the stigma surrounding drug dependency.
“It’s easy for us to kind of look down on people that you might see in the store or in the streets or whatever, the obvious signs of addiction,” he said. “I’m guilty of it a lot times, too, still. But I would like to see the community be able to — there’s got to be some way to bridge the gap and start a conversation about it.”
For Choate, who was diagnosed with PTSD “on paper” in 2008, a major part of the recovery process his been sharing his own struggles through social media. He recalls getting phone calls from old high school friends, who say that they, too, know a veteran navigating the dual challenges of PTSD and substance abuse — and would like to know what they can do to likewise get their loved ones the help they need to get their lives back on track.
As for Choate, his journey — as both a recovering substance user and a military veteran — continues. After spending two years in Vietnam, he’s now waiting for his wife to receive her immigration papers.
He knows he can’t predict what tomorrow may bring. But after so many years mired in darkness, he said he can’t help but feel optimistic about the future.
“I feel like I’ve suffered enough, and those around me have suffered enough, because of what I went through, so I feel pretty strong that relapse is not an option at this point,” he said. “There’s a lot of living to do once you’re free from that.”
Community Torn is a five-week series exploring the many ways substance abuse impacts Bartow, with an emphasis on the voices of those most impacted by the community's drug crisis. Using a multidisciplinary approach encompassing public policy specialists, health care providers, law enforcement officials and judicial system representatives, the series seeks to demonstrate the true toll of substance dependency throughout the county.