A West Point football player got hooked on pain pills. Now he owes the U.S. $300K.

Rich Schapiro

On the surface, Jared Rogers seemed to be thriving in early 2016.

He was a senior at West Point, the prestigious military academy in New York. A defensive back on the school’s storied football team, the Army Black Knights. And a cadet company commander, a position given to only the most elite West Point students.

Graduation was just a few months away, and Rogers, who grew up in a working-class section of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was eager to start the next phase of his life. He envisioned serving his country and then pursuing a career in engineering.

But Rogers never served his country. He didn’t even make it to the West Point graduation.

The 23-year-old cadet had a dark secret, and that March it got out: He was hooked on opioid pain pills — an addiction that began, he says, after he suffered an injury at football practice.

Failing a drug test came as no surprise. But Rogers wasn’t expecting what came later in the year: military charges accusing him of participating in a drug ring.

“They made it seem like I’m at West Point selling cocaine,” Rogers said. “I was just addicted to opioids.”

He struck a deal to resign from the academy to avoid the prospect of a military trial — and potential incarceration. But there were other consequences.

Rogers was given an other than honorable discharge, which, in the words of his lawyer, “follows you like herpes for the rest of your life.” He was also ordered to repay the U.S. government $256,000 — the value of his education at West Point, which cadets attend free in exchange for a commitment of military service.

For Rogers and his family, his experience represents a case of the military criminalizing addiction and wrecking a young person’s life in the process. A review of Rogers’ investigative reports and charging documents backs up his central argument: He’s not accused of selling drugs.

His crime was lending his car to a fellow cadet who used it to bring drugs on campus, including the pain pills that Rogers was dependent on.

Rogers’s experience raises questions about how West Point, and the Army at large, deals with cadets suffering from addiction. But his case is complex and polarizing, highlighting the challenges in handling substance abuse in a military environment and eliciting starkly different reactions from addiction experts, Army veterans and former West Point faculty members.

Retired Army Brigadier General Maritza Ryan, a former professor and head of the Department of Law at West Point, said she believes Rogers is fortunate to have avoided a military trial.

"Drug use, much less distribution, is wholly inconsistent with West Point’s mission to produce leaders of character for the Army and the nation," Ryan said.

But some other Army veterans said the case underscores the military’s outdated approach to drug addiction.

“To a certain extent the military still views substance addiction as a shortfall or weakness of the person, almost like mental health was viewed 20 years ago,” said Greg Rinckey, a former Army intelligence officer and JAG lawyer who now works as a defense attorney and is not involved in Rogers’ case.

Rinckey noted that even if Rogers weren’t hit with the drug distribution charge, he’d most likely find himself in the same situation: forced out of West Point and saddled with a staggering debt to the government, all for using pain pills he wasn’t prescribed.

Leo Beletsky, a professor at Northeastern University, said he believes the case illustrates how the armed forces, like many law enforcement agencies, fails its men and women who suffer from drug addiction.

“It’s a tragedy not only for him but for West Point and society at large,” said Beletsky, whose research focuses on the intersection of public health and criminal justice.

“Here is this person who had clear potential and who we had collectively invested in. Had he been given the right kind of support, he could have stabilized and found a way to continue doing what he was doing. Instead, we kind of just discarded him.”

A West Point spokeswoman said she couldn’t comment on Rogers’ case due to privacy concerns, but she said the academy is quick to provide support to cadets with drug problems.

“The U.S. Military Academy considers the physical and mental well-being of our cadets to be of the upmost importance,” the spokeswoman said. “When it is determined that any cadet is struggling with substance abuse, we take immediate steps to provide support and assistance through the Army Substance Abuse Program.”

Image: A view of the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. (Seth Wenig / AP file)

A fateful practice

Established in 1802, West Point is the oldest and best known of the nation’s military academies.

The institution is unlike a typical American college. It’s tuition free but its students, known as cadets, are required to perform a minimum of five years of military service following graduation.

West Point was created to hone the next generation of Army officers. Cadets undergo intensifying levels of military training during the summers and must complete physical tests, all while pursuing traditional degree programs. Their schedules are tightly regimented and their daily duties involve practicing formations and other aspects of military life.

The environment is designed to churn out leaders of stellar character and intellect. And in attending West Point, cadets are subject to the same military justice system that governs all active duty service members.

But, as Jared Rogers learned, when it comes to abusing drugs, West Point cadets can in fact face harsher consequences than Army soldiers. While enlisted service members are likely to receive separation papers and an other than honorable discharge, West Point juniors or seniors in the same predicament face the likelihood they will be forced to pay back hundreds of thousands of dollars representing the cost of their education.

“West Pointers are supposed to be leaders of men and women,” said Eugene Fidell, who teaches military law at Yale Law School. “This is probably the most pervasively regulated educational environment in the country.”

The military has long been dogged by criticism of its handling of substance abuse among service members.

The Army came under intense scrutiny in 2015 over the quality of care administered by its treatment clinics. In the previous five years, roughly 90 soldiers had died by suicide within three months of receiving substance abuse treatment and at least 31 suicides followed documented cases of substandard care, according to a USA Today investigation.

Spurred by a series of articles in the newspaper, the Army announced it was shifting oversight of the program to medical personnel. The program had until then been overseen by the Army’s Installation Management Command, which runs garrisons but lacks medical expertise.

Fed up by the system, a former Army psychiatrist, Dr. Patrick Lillard, had months earlier resigned from his position as clinical director of the Army substance abuse program at Fort Gordon, Georgia. Lillard’s team treated hundreds of service members struggling with addiction issues after stressful and traumatic experiences overseas.

“Substance abuse is endemic in the military, and it’s not treated as a medical problem,” Lillard told NBC News. “It’s treated as a behavioral problem.”

“They look at soldiers with substance abuse problems as damaged goods,” he said. “Like they’re subhuman and we don’t want to deal with them anymore.”

Lillard, 79, said he still sees several of his former patients free because they have no other access to care.

He said he believes the military, and its service academies, should offer intensive treatment to its men and women battling addiction. Focus on lowering the risk of relapse, he said, and put in the time to rehabilitate them the same way you would if they had suffered an injury or contracted a disease.

“It’s labor intensive, but the people that serve in our military or attend a place like West Point deserve that kind of attention,” Lillard said.

On the morning of March 4, 2014, the temperature was barely above zero when the members of the West Point football team trotted out for practice at about 6 a.m. The team was under great pressure to perform. The Army Black Knights were coming off a 3-9 season that ended with the firing of their head coach.

Rogers, a junior defensive back, felt a strange sensation in his fingers during conditioning drills, but he didn’t leave the practice field. It was only when he got back inside and pulled off his gloves that he realized the condition was serious.

“My fingers were purple. They were solid,” Rogers said in an interview. “And I had absolutely no feeling in them.”

Image: Rogers was treated for frostbite on his index and ring fingers in March 2014. (via Instagram)

Rogers went to the hospital thinking he’d be in and out in a few hours. Instead, it turned into a three-day ordeal after he was diagnosed with second-degree frostbite in his index and ring fingers, according to medical documents reviewed by NBC News.

He was treated with intravenous narcotics and discharged from the hospital with a prescription for 45 pills of Percocet to help ease any lingering pain in his fingers, medical records say.

“That’s where my addiction began,” Rogers said. “The seeds were sown.”

Rogers went through his bottle of Percocet in a week. Craving more drugs, he turned to a group of fellow cadets he knew had access to them: his teammates.

A brotherhood forged by football

Football is a notoriously bruising sport. Injuries are common. Playing hurt is a hallmark of the game.

At West Point, Rogers said, there was an ever-revolving cast of injured players who had opioid pills on hand to ease their pain.

“I knew I had teammates that had pills,” Rogers said. “Guys that were out of surgery, had a prescription and wanted to help out their teammate.”

The players’ use of pain pills wasn’t excessive, Rogers said, and their willingness to share them was motivated by a sense of brotherhood. It usually came at a price, however: a few dollars per pill.

“It was kind of like a brother looking out for another brother,” Rogers said. “There was no ill intent behind it.”

His addiction intensified in 2015. It got to the point where he needed more drugs than the other guys on the team could provide.

So he went outside the team and found a cadet who was dealing. A fellow football player introduced him, Rogers said, and soon he was meeting regularly with the man to buy more powerful 30-mg Percocet pills for $30 each. When the dealer asked Rogers to borrow his car to pick up drugs, Rogers never considered the possibility that doing so could lead to allegations that he was participating in a drug ring.

“I was sick,” Rogers said. “I was just thinking I need these Percocets to self medicate.”

In return, Rogers said, the dealer would sometimes give him a pill for free or fill up his gas tank. According to a statement from a cadet in military court records, the dealer brought onto the installation several different types of drugs, including cocaine and Xanax, that he had picked up from a man in Pennsylvania and a West Point barber named Gus.

During this period, Rogers proved to be a high-functioning addict.

He continued to excel on the field, playing in nine of the team’s 12 games in 2015. He managed to pass all of his classes. And in his senior year, he was selected to be a cadet company commander, putting him in charge of more than 100 other cadets.

By then, he had already signed a contract, presented to all West Point cadets at the start of their third year, that commits them to completing their schooling or face the potential of having to repay the cost of their education if they don't make it to graduation.

Rogers knew he had a problem, but said he was reluctant to seek help. “I didn’t know how to talk about it. I didn’t know how to get help about it,” Rogers said. “Because in the military, it’s frowned upon to have a mental illness.”

There was also something else going on: Rogers was ashamed. “I was the company commander,” he said. “Everybody looked up to me, and here I am addicted to pain pills.”

The West Point senior was in a bind. If he were to admit to one of his superiors that he was battling a drug addiction, he feared he would be forced to leave school.

So he kept his mouth shut, hoping his secret wouldn’t go beyond the small circle of cadets who knew he was abusing pain pills.

To tell or not to tell

According to Army guidelines, a soldier or cadet can disclose drug use without fear of the admission being used in disciplinary proceedings or to justify a so-called bad paper discharge.

But admitting to a drug problem carries risks. The individual is likely to be placed in a treatment program and may be allowed to remain in the service, a West Point spokesman said, or the military could remove the soldier — albeit with no less than an honorable discharge.

“The goal of the policy is to encourage self-reporting in order to facilitate treatment for those service members that demonstrate potential for rehabilitation and continued service,” a West Point spokesman said.

For cadets, the stakes are even higher. Self-reporting a drug problem could lead to the end of their schooling and a mandate to repay the cost of their education.

Dr. Jonathan Giftos, an addiction expert who until January ran the drug treatment program at the Rikers Island jail complex in New York, said the threat of those kinds of consequences invariably leads to people hiding their addiction.

“If a person is afraid to disclose that they are struggling with addiction, their use may escalate and become harder and harder to manage over time,” said Giftos, who is now the medical director for Project Renewal, a New York-based nonprofit that provides addiction treatment and other services to people experiencing homelessness.

Giftos said a better approach would be to make it possible for cadets to share their struggles confidentially without fear of repercussions and then provide them with evidence-based treatment for opioid addiction, such as methadone and buprenorphine, as well as ongoing recovery support.

"These punishments send the message that addiction is not a health issue — but rather a character flaw or moral failing,” he said. “This message is incorrect and dangerous and prevents people from seeking help when they need it most.”

An unexpected phone call

Rogers was at his girlfriend’s house in early March 2016 when he received the call that would upend his life.

On the other end of the line was Rogers’ direct superior, his senior tactical officer. The man’s voice was low, his words clipped.

Come back to post, Rogers says he was told, there’s a “situation” within your company.

Rogers arrived at his barracks room to find the tactical officer and an Army criminal investigator waiting for him. His room had been turned upside down. Rogers was told he was suspected of using illegal drugs. He had no idea at the time, but the dealer’s roommate had reported seeing Rogers and four other cadets in their room buying and using drugs, according to military records reviewed by NBC News.

Rogers was taken for a drug test. The results came back two weeks later: positive for Percocet and Adderall.

“If I couldn’t get opioids, the Adderall would help me relax,” Rogers said. “I’d try to fill that void.”

Rogers was two months away from graduating, but his future was now in doubt. With the failed drug test hanging over him, he wasn’t sure if he’d be allowed to graduate.

He began seeing an Army substance abuse counselor and tried to focus on his remaining schoolwork.

For the first time, Rogers opened up about his struggles in conversations with his professors. Some of them would later say they were struck by his ability to focus on his classes despite the uncertainty of his future.

“It was during this very difficult time in his personal life that Jared was assigned as the lead engineer" for a capstone design team, Daniel McCarthy, a West Point engineering professor, later wrote in a letter of support for Rogers. “And never once did I see any impact on Jared’s personal performance or his leadership of the team. This is a true testament to the strength of Jared’s character and his dedication to excellence.”

Rogers completed his last final exam on May 11. A week later, the Army sent him to an inpatient rehab center in Panama City, Florida, where he remained for 28 days, documents show.

Rogers was expecting to be allowed to return home. It was the summer of 2016. He had completed his coursework; there was no reason for him to go back to the academy.

But he was ordered to return to West Point where he says he was placed in barracks with his primary dealer and the other cadets who scored drugs from him. Rogers was allowed to see a drug counselor about once a week but he said he was otherwise not allowed to leave the installation, even to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings. He and the five other cadets were ordered to report to a room, for 12 hours a day, filing paperwork.

“I got out of rehab and was sent back to the same environment I was in when I was using,” he said. “I wasn’t able to go to NA meetings. It was kind of like I was boxed in a cage. For the first time, I really understood what it meant to be depressed.”

“What they did was easy for them administratively,” said Rogers’ lawyer, Eric Mayer. “It was horrible for anyone who takes recovery seriously.”

Rogers relapsed. The Army sent him to a second rehab facility, this one in his hometown of Baton Rouge.

Asked about the decision to place Rogers in barracks with the other cadets who failed drug tests, West Point said it could not provide specific information due to privacy concerns.

“However when cadets face disciplinary or legal actions they traditionally are placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation and/or criminal matter,” a spokeswoman said.

Rogers said he had still gotten no word about the investigation at that point and believed he might be allowed to graduate with the next class or at a later date.

But in October 2016, when he was back home with his family, he received a call from his tactical officer. The officer, Rogers said, delivered news that left him stunned and shaken: He was charged with conspiracy to distribute drugs, in addition to wrongful use of a controlled substance.

“It was devastating. It was shocking,” Rogers said. “And at the time it made me want to use more to cope.”

That Rogers could be hit with conspiracy charges isn’t unique to the military. Under state and federal law, a person can face criminal charges for lending a car to someone in furtherance of a conspiracy, including the distribution of narcotics.

In his case, Rogers wasn’t the only one accused of participating in a drug ring. The five other cadets who had spent the summer with him in the barracks were hit with the same charges.

The charging documents note that each of the five cadets either provided drugs to others or picked them up and brought them onto campus. Rogers wasn’t accused of doing either. The charging documents say his involvement in the conspiracy consisted of him allowing two of his fellow cadets to use his car to purchase drugs and bring them to West Point.

Rogers said he came to believe that he would have no problem beating the distribution charge. “I didn’t sell one single unit of a pain pill to anyone,” he said.

But there was no way around the wrongful use charge. Rogers was indeed guilty of using prescription drugs that he wasn’t prescribed.

Image: A cadet holds his diploma at U.S. Military Academy Graduation at West Point in N.Y. in 2007. (Stephen Chernin / Getty Images file)

A colonel’s praise

Speaking with his attorney, Rogers ultimately decided to accept the equivalent of a plea bargain: to resign from the school in exchange for the dismissal of the charges against him.

He also agreed to cooperate with the military investigators handling the case. He even wrote up a list of every person he says provided him with pills. It included the names of 14 current or former cadets, seven of whom played on the football team.

His lawyer, meanwhile, requested that the military grant him a medical or general discharge because of his addiction. They knew it was a long shot, but it would improve his chances of receiving a certificate of academic completion and avoiding a colossal debt.

“It is not fair that Jared faces such monstrous debt, especially considering the fact that his ability to gain meaningful employment is hampered by his lack of a college degree,” Mayer wrote.

To bolster the case, Rogers' lawyer sent the Army his medical records and a handful of character letters from fellow cadets and faculty members.

"He is one of the most honest and sincere cadets I have ever met, as his characteristics are exactly what commander’s desire," wrote Col. Marcus Wildy, who served as Rogers’ tactical officer from June 2015 to May 2016.

"Undoubtedly, Cadet Rodgers has used this experience to re-shape his approach and emerged a more effective leader. It is my strongest recommendation that Cadet Rodger’s error in judgment (be seen) as a one time mistake and that he be allowed to continue to serve in our Army at a capacity that far exceeds his peers."

The Army decided otherwise. Rogers was given an other than honorable discharge and ordered to repay the government $256,275.00.

He and his family were aghast.

“My son didn’t show up at West Point a drug addict,” said his father, Carl Rogers. “West Point made him a drug addict.”

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Retired Col. Jack Jacobs, a Medal of Honor recipient who teaches at West Point, said he’d be concerned if Rogers had been prescribed opioids with no follow up or further monitoring. But overall he thinks the former cadet got off easy.

“My view is that he’s lucky he’s not in jail right now,” said Jacobs, who is also an NBC News analyst.

“He knew his classmate was driving the car to pick up drugs that would subsequently be sold, and so he was complicit in his classmate’s crime.”

Jacobs said the military’s primary concern when making personnel decisions is how they affect the rest of the force. “It’s unfortunate that he had a drug problem, but that doesn’t absolve him of his actions.”

Two of the cadets charged with Rogers were court-martialed and ultimately sentenced to prison time. The man identified as the kingpin of the operation, Christopher Monge, who was Rogers’ primary supplier, was convicted by a military judge and sentenced to 25 months in prison. Tevin Long, a football player who was also accused of obtaining drugs off campus and selling them to cadets, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 days confinement.

It’s not clear if the Army took any action against the 14 cadets identified by Rogers as having provided him with pain pills. West Point declined comment citing privacy laws. A seventh cadet was hit with drug charges in March 2017, but it wasn’t one named by Rogers and West Point has not announced any additional cases since.

“Ultimately, the academy chose to deal with what was individual misbehavior,” Mayer said. “What concerns me is I’m not sure what they chose to do with the things that pointed a finger at a systemic problem.”

The West Point spokeswoman said the Army “fully investigated” the allegations made by Rogers but she could not comment on whether any action was taken against the specific individuals alleged to have provided him with pills.

Monge sold cocaine, Percocet and Xanax to more than 40 cadets, including members of the school’s football, lacrosse and hockey teams, according to military court documents. Citing privacy concerns, the West Point spokeswoman said she couldn’t comment on whether any action was taken against the other cadets who procured drugs from Monge.

Monge declined to comment. Long also declined to comment. The fate of the three other cadets who were charged along with Rogers wasn’t clear. The spokeswoman said she couldn’t comment, and the three former cadets couldn’t be reached.

Gus the barber, whose full name is Gustavo Watts, was charged by New York federal prosecutors with one count of drug possession in November 2017. Watts pleaded not guilty and the case was ultimately dismissed, court records show.

“The charges against Gustavo Watts were ultimately dismissed, but only after he was forced to resign his post and to suffer shame and embarrassment,” said his lawyer, Raymond Sprowls. “No doubt Jared Rogers suffered, too, but he and the other cadets knew what they signed up for — a free world-class education in exchange for their commitment to serve and to uphold the Cadet Honor Code.”

Rogers is now living at home and still trying to jump-start a professional career.

The last three years haven’t been easy. He attended Louisiana State University for a semester but said he had to drop out because his financial aid didn’t go through. He worked as a door-to-door salesman in Denver. He spent time as a sales associate at a Dillard’s department store in Baton Rouge.

Most of his former peers, meanwhile, are now serving as Army lieutenants, proud members of the so-called long gray line of West Point alumni.

“I didn’t deserve to serve being that I was addicted to opioids,” said Rogers, 27, who now works at an AT&T store. “But I felt that I should have been treated as someone with a medical condition — not like a criminal — and given the proper treatment and the proper attention that I needed.”

Rogers still has an enormous debt hanging over his head. He’s in the process of appealing it, and he’s set up a payment plan, for $50 a month, in the hope that it will prevent the military from garnishing his wages. But his debt keeps rising.

Two months ago, he received a notice in the mail from a private collection agency.

The total amount owed? $331,396.77.