Near-death experience gives military chaplain new lease on life

By Elaine SanchezApril 18, 2023

Military chaplain chooses family over alcohol
1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Bret Gilmore is an Army chaplain assigned to Brooke Army Medical Center, Joint Base San Antonio – Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Gilmore is sharing his past struggles with alcoholism to remind others that they are not alone and help is available. For substance abuse support and resources, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s 24/7 National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or visit (DoD photo by Jason W. Edwards) (Photo Credit: Jason W. Edwards) VIEW ORIGINAL
Military chaplain choses family over alcohol
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Bret Gilmore and his family pose for a photo in December 2022. Gilmore is an Army chaplain assigned to Brooke Army Medical Center, Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Gilmore shares his past struggles with alcoholism to remind others that they are not alone, and help is available. For substance abuse support and resources, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s 24/7 National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or visit (Courtesy Photo) (Photo Credit: Courtesy) VIEW ORIGINAL

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, April 18, 2023 – He had lost his family, his home and nearly his job, but it took a near-death experience for Lt. Col. Bret Gilmore to finally quit drinking and regain his life.

The Army chaplain said it was a close call that he can't afford to repeat.

"If I drink again, I will lose my family," Gilmore said. "And losing my family is not now, or ever will be, an option."

Just over a year ago, after decades of drinking, Gilmore was deeply depressed, living alone in an RV, and downing a bottle of vodka each day – a stark contrast to the happy memories of his childhood.


Growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Gilmore recalls a happy childhood filled with family gatherings, fishing and camping under the stars on the bayou. A self-proclaimed “lazy” student, he squeaked by high school with a .9 grade point average. After a brief stint in college, he enlisted in the Army in 1987. Inspired by his father, a Vietnam veteran, the military was a calling that had appealed to him from a young age.

“The military is where I excelled,” said Gilmore, noting his first duty station was in Berlin, Germany, in 1987, when the Berlin Wall was still standing. “I was a great Soldier, a great MP (military policeman).”

After a rappelling injury prevented him from re-enlisting, Gilmore decided to switch gears and follow his other calling – the church. He took his then-wife and daughter to a small country church in Mississippi where he preached to a small congregation for several years. With a new academic outlook, he completed his bachelor’s degree, followed by seminary school, in record time.

“Alcohol wasn’t a major issue for me at this point,” he said. “Southern Baptist pastors don’t drink in Mississippi.”


After a move to a church in Wisconsin, where pastors do drink, Gilmore started having a few beers on occasion. Seeking a new challenge, he again set his sights on the Army. He obtained a waiver for his past injury and was stationed on Fort Drum, New York, as a battalion chaplain. Not long after, a tragedy struck that shook the chaplain to his core.

Gilmore was among the first to respond when a helicopter crash killed 11 Soldiers and critically injured two others. On March 11, 2003, three aircraft were returning to Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield, but the last chopper, a Black Hawk, didn’t return. It had crashed in a snowy, wooded area on Fort Drum. With his Soldiers at the scene, he and his chaplain’s assistant went straight to the hospital to identify the survivors.

“My Soldiers later told me the scene was terrible, decapitated bodies and limbs everywhere,” he recalled, looking visibly pained as he described the memory. “At the hospital, we tried to identify the survivors but there was just a pile of bloody clothes. We finally took off their dog tags and identified them. I remember looking down and my hands were covered in blood and gore; it was terrible.”

Deeply troubled by the incident, the chaplain switched from beer to bourbon, and his drinking began to escalate.


The chaplain received more devastating news when he and his wife were enroute to their new duty station at Fort Polk, Louisiana. Their 17-year-old daughter, Brittany, had died in a car accident.

“She was my first child; we were so close,” he said. “I was rock solid taking care of my wife, but as the plane landed in Baton Rouge, where our sons Caleb and Josh were waiting, I was crying hysterically. It was a terrible time.”

After the tragedy, Gilmore said he doesn’t recall much from the next eight months. “I was drunk a lot but managing – really just surviving.”

The downward spiral continued when he and his wife, who had been struggling in their marriage, divorced in March 2012 and his sons became increasingly distant.

“My sons were upset about past issues and didn’t talk to me for a year,” he said. “That absolutely crushed me; my family is everything to me.”

Now stationed in Virginia, and alone in an apartment with nothing but time on his hands, the chaplain reported to work each day, but went home and drank a bottle of bourbon a night. The only bright spot in that difficult year was meeting his future wife Jina, he said.

“When we started dating, I told her that I had one stipulation to us being together,” Gilmore said. “I told her she couldn’t ever ask me to stop drinking. She had no idea how bad it was or would get.”

They married in May 2015, and he became a stepdad to her three young girls, who he later adopted. Devoted to his family, Gilmore tried quitting alcohol multiple times over the years, but “nothing took hold.”


Even a health scare in 2016 didn’t stop him. He had been experiencing intestinal issues and was diagnosed with a vasoactive intestinal polypeptide secreting tumor, a rare (1 in 10 million) pancreatic disease. The doctors removed the tumor, and Gilmore was sent home to rest. But even in recovery, his thoughts were consumed by alcohol.

“I got in bed, then got back up and downed two-thirds of a bottle of vodka the day I got home,” the chaplain recalled.

After several years in Germany, Gilmore and his family arrived at Brooke Army Medical Center in July 2020, during the height of COVID-19 and when the healthcare system was the focal point of the pandemic.

“My wife was stressed about her job, and I was stressed about our house renovations, so we started fighting,” he said. “As our arguments increased, my drinking increased. I became the alcoholic, that guy, who curses at his 13-year-old and punches holes in the wall. I thought I was in the right, but they saw an unpredictable, potentially violent man.”

“I have complete regret about that time; they considered me their dad,” he said with tears in his eyes. “I was supposed to be there for them.”


The issues escalated and the chaplain and his wife separated in January 2021. He moved into an RV, leaving him with nothing but time. Alone and depressed, he spent every evening drinking bourbon and later, due to the expense, the cheapest vodka he could find. He traveled to different liquor stores across the city each day to avoid questions and judgmental stares.

“I would drive by certain stores and remember thinking, ‘I wish I had a gun,’” he said. “I considered buying one but didn’t. I knew down-deep I would use it.”

“It got so bad, I had to have a shot in the morning just to get started,” he added. “If I got sick from drinking on an empty stomach, I just had another.”

While his personal life was in shambles, his professional life had remained intact. That all changed in November 2021. Having just finished caring for patients and families during trauma duty, Gilmore had a few hours before he had to be at a memorial service rehearsal.

“I immediately went to the Class 6 store, took a couple of big swigs, and then went to the rehearsal,” he recalled. “I knew better but did it anyway.”

He wasn’t visibly drink, but a commander smelled alcohol on his breath.

Worried about his career, Gilmore denied he had a problem, but others came forward with concerns about his alcohol use. His company commander directed him to go to detox, followed by more intensive rehab. However, just prior to admission, he caught COVID-19 and was sent home to quarantine and recover. That was the tipping point, he said.

“I was alone in my RV for weeks without any distractions,” he said. “I drank nonstop and ate nothing but one or two fried eggrolls a day. I had bruises all over my body from falling. By the third week, I was drinking myself to death.”

One day, Gilmore went most of the day without a drink and started feeling strange. He fell asleep but was startled awake when his breathing stopped. “I felt like my brain was moving around in my head,” he recalled.

“I’ve been in combat zones three times and never feared for my life, but I did that day,” he said. “I knew my body was shutting down.”


His wife brought him to BAMC where he was admitted and treated for withdrawal. “My wife later told me what the doctor said. If I hadn’t come in when I did, I would have been dead in 48 hours.”

After detox, Gilmore was admitted to BAMC’s Residential Treatment Program for a month, where he began to unpack past trauma and heal. “This is when my life began to change,” he said. “It’s a great program. If you give yourself to it, become vulnerable, it will help you become and stay sober. Vulnerability was key to my recovery.”

After treatment, Gilmore, who had reconciled with his wife, moved back in with his family, but it took a long time to rebuild their trust, he said. “Alcohol took so much away from me and my family,” he said. “I have many, many regrets.”


Now sober since Jan. 31, 2022, Gilmore shares his story with others – from junior enlisted to senior officer -- without hesitation or fear of judgement. “By sharing, it normalizes issues like alcoholism for others, and it reminds me I’m not alone,” he said. “Even if someone judges me, no one can hurt me more than the alcohol did.”

At every opportunity he encourages service members to get the help they need voluntarily and early on. “Talk to your chain of command and ask for help,” he advises. “Don’t wait until your addiction impacts your career. If you can get your sobriety right, everything else will be OK.”

In turn, he urges leaders to “help, not hammer” their troops. Gilmore often shares his three Hs: give honor, give hope, then give honesty.

“Service members have enough people in their lives who are correcting them,” he said. “Leaders should listen with honor and respect and offer a beacon of hope, their resources for care. Then, give them honesty and explain the potential impacts on their career and their lives.”


With a new outlook on life, Gilmore is excited about the future. He is currently apprenticing at a Volkswagen repair shop and will soon medically retire from the military.

As with many in recovery, Gilmore still struggles with urges to drink, especially on the bad days when his anxiety is at its worst. “There are days when I want this hurt to stop,” he said. “The other day I had the thought, ‘If I were dead, it would be OK.’ In the past, I would drink in those dark moments. Now, I tell myself that the moment will pass; I won’t feel that way six hours from now.”

It’s been a tough journey, but without it, Gilmore believes he’d be drinking again. “My cousin once said she’s never seen me without a drink in my hand, but now they say they never see me without my family. Every time I want a drink, the thought of losing my family stops me in my tracks.”

At a senior leadership huddle just prior to his departure, the chaplain shared his battle with alcohol and told a story about his sons. Years ago, they ran over to their dad and said they had found a garden snake.

Concerned about them, he went to see it for himself. Rather than a harmless snake, it turned out to be a poisonous moccasin.

The moral of the story, he said, is to “be careful what you bring into your life. For me, my poisonous snake was alcohol. The trick is to get rid of those snakes before they get rid of you.”

For substance abuse support and resources, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s 24/7 National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or visit For people in crisis, dial 911, go to the nearest emergency room, or call the 24/7 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 or visit