Aberdeen Proving Ground leader pledges Army's help in opioid epidemic fight

When Maj. Gen. Randy S. Taylor began his tenure as senior commander of Aberdeen Proving Ground in April, he says he heard, over and over again, concerns about the opioid epidemic in Harford County when he met with community leaders.

“The thing that they wanted to talk about first, and most, was the opioid epidemic in our communities,” Taylor said in his introductory remarks during the National Opioid Crisis Community Summit at the Edgewood Area of APG Thursday morning, where Taylor and another Maryland military post commander pledged the Army’s help in combating the epidemic.

Taylor said APG’s Edgewood Area is home to the top experts in the nation and the world on studying hazardous chemicals and developing methods to protect people from exposure, and officials want to offer that expertise as a tool to help local and state organizations combat drug addiction and a rising tide of overdose deaths.

He cited the proverb: “It takes a village to raise a child.”

“This is certainly a coming together of our village,” Taylor said.

The general spoke to an audience of about 300 people from throughout the state, including county and municipal leaders from Cecil and Harford counties, gathered in a meeting room in the Army’s Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense facility.

Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford and Harford County Executive Barry Glassman were among the featured speakers during the morning portion of the summit.

“We have a formidable fight ahead of us, and the battleground is nationwide,” Glassman said. “Addiction impacts every age, ZIP code and demographic.”

The county executive noted the community has, “for decades,” looked to personnel at APG “ to protect our soldiers and our borders.”

“Now we turn to you for your help to protect our sons, our daughters, our friends and neighbors from this epidemic,” he said.

Taylor, who said he did not initially see the military as being part of the solution to the deadly opioid crisis sweeping Harford County, Maryland and the nation, worked with fellow Army leaders, including his counterpart at Ft. Detrick in Frederick County, senior commander and Army Nurse Corps Chief Maj. Gen. Barbara R. Holcomb, to set up Thursday’s summit.

Holcomb discussed strategies the Army has used to reduce the amount of pain medication prescribed to soldiers, steer them toward alternate methods of managing pain and assist troops dealing with substance abuse and behavioral health issues,

She cited a 2016 health report that indicated “about 50 percent of active duty soldiers experience one or more injures at an average rate of 1.4 injuries per soldier.”

“The Army looks forward to developing and sharing ideas for best practices with you, our counterparts, as we face this epidemic together,” Holcomb said.

More than 300 overdoses, 61 of them fatal, have happened in Harford County so far this year, according to Sheriff’s Office statistics. That is more than all overdoses that happened in 2016.

Rutherford said Harford is not alone in dealing with the scourge of heroin, which has become even deadlier with the introduction of syntheic painkillers and sedatives such as fentanyl and carfentanil.

“From one end of the state to the other, the crisis is destroying lives, tearing apart families,” said the lieutenant governor, who heads the state’s Heroin and Opioid Emergency Task Force.

During a break in the program, Cecil County Executive Alan McCarthy estimated his county has the highest death rates, per capita, from opioids in the state.

“The only hope that I see is to educate these people,” McCarthy said.

Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency regarding opioids in March.

“Because we needed to treat this as a real emergency, we took that extraordinary action,” Rutherford said.

He said more than 1,200 Marylanders died from opioid overdoses in 2016, and the death toll rose above 2,000 when overdoses from alcohol, cocaine and prescription drugs were added.

More than 400 opioid-related deaths happened in Maryland in the first quarter of 2017, and 372 of those deaths were related to fentanyl, Rutherford said.

“Every day, six Marylanders are losing their lives to this scourge,” said Rutherford, who noted the 2016 toll exceeded the number of deaths from firearms and auto crashes.

He said the Hogan administration has taken a three-pronged approach of prevention, treatment and enforcement.

Those efforts include monitoring prescription drugs, often the precursor to heroin use, public campaigns to encourage parents to talk wth their children about the dangers of opioids and legal tools, such as those based on the federal goverment’s Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, to take down drug trafficking organizations.

Rutherford said “heroin coordinators” have also been working with local law enforcement around to state to document and catalog in a shared database every opioid related seizure, arrest and investigation.

“It is about healing families and communities so that, together, we can save lives,” he said.

The audience also heard from Jennifer Tippet, an Anne Arundel County resident whose husband died from an overdose last October, Charles “Buck” Hedrick, the Baltimore-based manager of intelligence for the DEA, and Clay Stamp, executive director of the state’s Opioid Operational Command Center.

“The state of emergency is a call to order,” Stamp said. “It’s a call to action, it’s the strongest tool a governor can use.”

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