Former Marine Dennis Phillips juggles being an honor student at Skagit Valley College, carrying a full load of classes and working part-time with an Island County drug outreach program.
In his “spare” time, Phillips volunteers with several Whidbey veterans groups, driving people to medical appointments and guiding them through bureaucratic red tape.
Phillips is also a recovering addict.
“From age 15 to age age 45, I was a straight-up alcoholic until the end of my drinking career,” he said. “I never went a day without being drunk. I was working to buy alcohol.”
Beer, lots of beer — by the six-pack or at the bar — filled his days and nights and belly.
“Keystone Light. That’s what I drank — for quantity, not quality.”
Growing up in Olney, Texas, Phillips was cleaning out horse stalls following high school when he received a call from a military recruiter.
“He told me, ‘There’s a whole world out there that doesn’t involve shoveling horse manure.’”
At age 17, he enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1984, his mother crying in the background.
After boot camp in San Diego, Phillips was stationed at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island with Attack Squadron VA-128 and learned how to be a mechanic for A-6 aircraft.
He traveled with the squadron, worked on aircraft carriers and lived in Japan for two years. Stationed at the military base in Jacksonville, N.C., Phillips worked on helicopters engines.
At age 26, Phillips left the military, got married, had four children.
And kept on drinking.
A few times, he stooped to mouthwash or food flavoring to maintain the high.
He’s been arrested for DUI three times and had his driver’s license revoked.
Phillips, now 51, freely admits to be a functioning drunk when stationed at NAS Whidbey Island.
He wasted lots of days and nights with his drinking buddies at the popular bars of the day — For Pete’s Sake and Oak Harbor Tavern.
So it’s a good bet that people working with the amiable, energetic, ever-smiling Phillips today wouldn’t recognize Dennis Phillips, the drunkard.
Tara Hizon has shared an office with Phillips ever since he first worked for the county as an intern with the Opioid Outreach Program. Hizon coordinates Island County’s Youth Substance Abuse Prevention Program and she’s a member of the Oak Harbor City Council.
“Dennis gives 110 percent every single day for no reason other than to prove to himself and his family that he can — and hopefully even help a few others along the way,” Hizon said. “I think he’s an absolute inspiration.”
Phillips works about 20 hours a week with the outreach team that also includes a public health nurse and sheriff’s deputy. Started last year, the team is concentrating efforts for now on Camano Island and in South Whidbey communities.
Phillips started part-time work a few months ago when the former outreach worker transferred to another county job.
“I take referrals from family members, law enforcement, the needle exchange program and I try and help people get the recovery help they need,” Phillips explained. Many have issues preventing them from seeking treatment, such as a lack of transportation or health insurance, he said.
Some are homeless and lost jobs, families and friends to their addiction.
“Nobody wants to be a heroin addict,” Phillips said. “At the point when they get addicted, they’re not using to use. They’re using not to be sick.”
He knows. He’s been there. Drinking ended his first marriage and kept his kids away. Still he didn’t stop when he married again.
“Life was better, but I was still drunk all the time,” Phillips said. “I knew that if I didn’t get help, I’d lose the best thing I ever had.”
He credits a 30-day in-patient program at the Walla Walla VA hospital for saving his life and Alcoholic Anonymous for keeping him sober.
He faithfully attends AA meeting and recently earned his five-year coin.
“It’s been five years, two months and 17 days,” he proudly said, glancing at the calendar on his phone.
Once he got sober, Phillips had a sense he’d be helping others face down similar fears, doubts and demons.
“This kind of work called for me.”
Behavioral Health Specialist Skye Newkirk, who oversees the county opioid outreach program, described Phillips’ experience and personality as an ideal combination for the job.
“He is someone who does not give up on folks, and he always maintains hope for their recovery,” Newkirk said. “I believe that this perspective has been greatly informed by his own experiences, making him an ideal ally as folks navigate our complex treatment systems.
“All of that, added to a wicked sense of humor, makes him an awesome coworker.”
Phillips hopes to complete classes for an associate’s degree in human services at Skagit Valley College in Mount Vernon. He wants to be trained to independently assess addicted individuals, which requires 2,500 hours of supervised experience in the field.
On track to graduate at the end of the quarter, Phillips says he sometimes still doesn’t believe he’s in college, let alone acing his classes.
Phillips had been working in housekeeping at veterans facilities, a job he said he enjoyed much more than he’d ever expected to after working as a welder for years.
His second wife, Jennifer Phillips, a Navy veteran, suggested almost two years ago that he check out veterans’ vocational training programs.
“‘School? Me? I’m 50 years old’ is how I reacted at first,” Phillips said, laughing. “I’d never been to college.”
In late 2016, he started classes at Skagit Valley College. He’ll graduate in less than two months. His wife, daughter and others in his life are all planning to wear their respective caps and gowns.
“Right now, I have a 3.8 GPA and I’m taking 21 credits,” he said. “For two quarters I made the honor roll with a perfect 4.0. I’m shocked. Just shocked. The whole recovery process has been such a blessing for me. I never knew that normal life is amazing.”