Whenever Katie Kukuk tells someone she used to be addicted to drugs, the typical responses are disbelief and shock.
Kukuk shared her story Wednesday with recovering addicts, their families and local advocates at the fourth annual Rock for Recovery event at the Rock County 4-H Fairgrounds.
She was one of three recovering addicts who shared their stories.
“It really can hit anyone,” Kukuk said. “The best of people can fall to addiction.”
Kukuk remembers crying in the bathtub with her mother years ago, pledging to change her life. She’s now the manager of a sales company, living a life she never thought she could have after battling addiction.
“We get so caught up. We do bad things and we get in trouble. It could be with our families, our friends or even the law. This causes people to believe that they can’t and will never amount to anything,” she said.
Kukuk said she proved herself wrong and that she hopes others struggling with addiction get help.
Micheal Coleman knows the struggle well.
The Janesville resident has a physical disability that required medication. He struggled with an addiction to painkillers for a decade before changing his life, he told The Gazette in an interview.
Wednesday’s event reminded him how far he has come.
“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve suffered from depression,” he said. “Suicide has been attempted quite a few times in my life.”
Coleman sought treatment and tried to separate himself from bad influences in his life, deleting them from his Facebook and phone. He relapsed an estimated 20 times before finding the right balance, but his four kids provided the motivation he needed.
“I battled all of that and addiction for a long time up until a couple years ago, and then I put that aside. My kids really saved my life.”
Coleman said he hopes to educate others and someday become a public speaker on addiction. He remembers feeling alone, but he wants others to keep fighting and get help.
“If I could do it, you can do it. … Find a new hobby, stick to it and live your dreams.”
Erin Davis with Janesville Mobilizing 4 Change helped organize Rock for Recovery, which also featured a memorial walk and information and resources on addiction. A candlelight vigil was held for people who have died from addiction and for those still fighting.
Davis hopes community members educate themselves about addiction.
“What surprises me most is still the number of people who don’t understand that addiction is a disease, and it’s not something that somebody could control. Because if they could, they would,” she said.
Tara Johnson, who also spoke Wednesday, has been sober for 24 years. She began using at 13 and was a “functioning addict” by 18.
Recovery isn’t easy, Johnson said, and addicts need their families and friends.
“For family members, when you think that you’re just going to wipe your hands and you have to walk away, try one more time.”
Turkey launched airstrikes, fired artillery and began a ground offensive against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria on Wednesday after U.S. troops pulled back from the area, paving the way for an assault on forces that have long been allied with the United States.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the start of the campaign, which followed an abrupt decision Sunday by U.S. President Donald Trump that American troops would step aside to allow the operation.
Trump’s move drew bipartisan opposition at home and represented a shift in U.S. policy that essentially abandoned the Syrian Kurdish fighters who have been America’s only allies in Syria fighting the Islamic State group. After Erdogan announced the offensive, Trump called the operation “a bad idea.”
There were signs of panic in the streets of residential areas close to the borders as civilians fled on foot, in cars and with rickshaws piled with mattresses and a few belongings. They included people who had fled from the Islamic State group only few years ago.
At least seven civilians and one member of the Kurdish-led force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces were killed in the Turkish bombardment, Kurdish activists and a Syria war monitor said.
Near the town of Qamishli, plumes of smoke rose from an area close to the border after activists reported an explosion nearby. By nighttime, there were fires in one of the town’s neighborhoods, apparently ignited by the shelling.
Turkey’s Defense Ministry said Turkish ground forces, joined by allied Syrian opposition forces, had moved across the border into Syria. Shortly after, SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said its fighters had repelled the Turkish ground attack in Tal Abyad.
Earlier, a U.S. defense official and a Kurdish official in Syria said the SDF has suspended operations against IS militants because of the Turkish operation. The officials who confirmed the suspension spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to provide details on the situation.
Turkey’s campaign—in which a NATO member is raining down bombs on an area where hundreds of U.S. troops are stationed—drew immediate criticism and calls for restraint from Europe. In his statement, Trump emphasized that there are no American soldiers in the area under attack.
“Our mission is to prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area,” Erdogan said in a tweet announcing what he called “Operation Peace Spring.”
He said that Turkish forces, with Ankara-backed Syrian fighters known as the Syrian National Army, had begun to eradicate what he called “the threat of terror” against Turkey.
Minutes before Erdogan’s announcement, Turkish jets began pounding suspected positions of Syrian Kurdish forces in the town of Ras al Ayn, according to Turkish media and Syrian activists. The sound of explosions could be heard in Turkey.
It was difficult to know what was hit in the first hours of the operation.
Bali, the SDF spokesman, said Turkish warplanes were targeting “civilian areas” in northern Syria, causing “a huge panic” in the region.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said those killed in the Turkish bombardments included two Christian Assyrians in Qamishli, a married couple and their child, a man in a village outside of the town of Tal Abyad, and a child in a village west of Qamishli.
Before Turkey’s attack, Syrian Kurdish forces that are allied with the United States warned of a “humanitarian catastrophe.”
The Turkish operation meant to create a “safe zone” carries potential gains and risk for Turkey by getting even more deeply involved in the Syria war. It also would ignite new fighting in Syria’s 8-year-old war, potentially displacing hundreds of thousands.
A resident of Tal Abyad said one of the bombs hit an SDF office, and he fled with his wife and mother by car to Raqqa, nearly 60 miles to the south, to flee the bombing. The resident, who gave his name as Maher, said the road to Raqqa was packed with vehicles and families, some fleeing on foot “to get away from the bombing.”
“People fled and left everything behind,” he said in a text message after he reached safety.
Turkey has long threatened to attack the Kurdish fighters that Ankara considers terrorists allied with a Kurdish insurgency in Turkey. Expectations of an invasion increased after Trump’s announcement Sunday, although he also threatened to “totally destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy if the Turkish push went too far.
U.S. critics said he was sacrificing an ally, the Syrian Kurdish forces, and undermining Washington’s credibility. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally, told “Fox & Friends” that if Trump “follows through with this, it would be the biggest mistake of his presidency.”
Trump later said the U.S. “does not endorse this attack and has made it clear to Turkey that this operation is a bad idea.”
Trump said he made clear from the start of his political career that “I did not want to fight these endless, senseless wars—especially those that don’t benefit the United States. Turkey has committed to protecting civilians, protecting religious minorities, including Christians, and ensuring no humanitarian crisis takes place—and we will hold them to this commitment.”
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, while noting that Turkey “has legitimate security concerns” after suffering “horrendous terrorist attacks” and hosting thousands of refugees, said the country should not “further destabilize the region” with its military action in Syria.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas condemned the offensive, saying it will “further destabilize the region and strengthen IS.” The operation also was criticized by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
The EU is paying Turkey $6.6 billion to help the country cope with almost 4 million Syrian refugees in its territory in exchange for stopping migrants leaving for Europe.
Fahrettin Altun, the Turkish presidency’s communications director, urged the international community to rally behind Ankara, which he said would take over the fight against the Islamic State group.
Turkey aimed to “neutralize” Syrian Kurdish militants in northeastern Syria and to “liberate the local population from the yoke of the armed thugs,” Altun wrote in a Washington Post column published Wednesday.
Erdogan discussed the incursion by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Erdogan’s office said he told Putin the military action “will contribute to the peace and stability” and allow for a political process in Syria.
In its call for a general mobilization, the local civilian Kurdish authority known as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria asked the global community to live up to its responsibilities as “a humanitarian catastrophe might befall our people.”
The Kurds also said they want the U.S.-led coalition to set up a no-fly zone in northeastern Syria to protect the civilian population from Turkish airstrikes.
The U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish group urged Moscow to broker talks with the Syrian government in Damascus in light of the Turkish operation. The Syrian Kurdish-led administration said it is responding positively to calls from Moscow encouraging the Kurds and the Syrian government to settle their differences through talks.
Syria’s Foreign Ministry condemned Turkey’s plans, calling it a “blatant violation” of international law and vowing to repel an incursion.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused Washington of playing “very dangerous games” with the Syrian Kurds, saying the U.S. first propped up the Syrian Kurdish “quasi state” in Syria and now is withdrawing support.
“Such reckless attitude to this highly sensitive subject can set fire to the entire region, and we have to avoid it at any cost,” he said in Kazakhstan.
Earlier Wednesday, three IS militants targeted the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqqa, once the de facto IS capital at the height of the militants’ power. An activist collective in Raqqa reported an exchange of fire and an explosion; the Observatory said two IS fighters engaged in a shootout before blowing themselves up.
IS claimed responsibility, saying one of its members killed or wounded 13 SDF members.
The SDF, which holds thousands of IS fighters in detention facilities in northeastern Syria, has warned that a Turkish incursion might lead to the resurgence of the extremists. The U.S.-allied Kurdish-led force captured the last IS-controlled area in Syria in March.
Robert H. Diamond Sr.
Judith A. Engle
Ann M. Hill
Rheta R. Kauer
Dorothy E. Stuckey
Walter “Pinky” York
Eric Pizer has wanted to help others and do something positive with his life for as long as he can remember.
As a boy, he had hoped to become a police officer.
“Ever since I was a kid, that’s always been the one figure I’ve always looked up to and respected a lot, and I just always thought one day I’d be a police officer,” Pizer said.
He enlisted in the Marine Corps after high school to prepare himself for a law enforcement career and to serve his country. He served two tours during the Iraq War.
But days after returning home in 2004, his goal went sideways. He was charged with felony substantial battery after an altercation outside a bar in Boscobel. He got probation, but that prohibited him from carrying a gun and working as a police officer.
On Monday, Pizer, 38, got a fresh start. He was among four people pardoned by Gov. Tony Evers—the first pardons issued in Wisconsin in nearly 10 years.
Pizer was 23 at the time of the 2004 incident. He was celebrating his return from deployment with friends when they were joined at the bar by a group of women they had met.
“It was pretty low-key, and we found out later one of them was married, and none of us knew, and none of the girls had said anything, so we didn’t think anything bad was happening,” he said.
The woman’s husband showed up with a friend, and the husband and wife started arguing. The dispute escalated, and the husband’s friend started poking Pizer’s chest and saying he was going to kill Pizer’s friend.
Without thinking, Pizer punched the man in the face, breaking his nose.
“It happened so fast,” Pizer said.
Pizer and the man have since made amends, but Pizer couldn’t follow his dream or possess a firearm until this week. In the meantime, he went to school and earned associate degrees in criminal justice and health science.
He said he studied criminal justice because he hoped the conviction eventually would be reversed. He worked as a personal trainer but said it’s hard to sustain a career in that field.
Pizer applied for a pardon with the Pardon Advisory Board, which was reinstated by Evers after he was elected governor in 2018. After applying with the help of his lawyer, David Relles, all Pizer could do was wait.
“It was the longest two weeks of these entire 15 years,” he said “... I was still optimistic, but at the same time, everything I’ve been through dealing with this pardon, I kept myself in check a little bit.”
The wait proved worth the stress, and Pizer was notified that his pardon would be granted.
“I was extremely excited,” he said. “I don’t know how to really describe it, but it was a great crowning achievement for something I’ve been trying to do for a long time.”
Relles, Pizer’s lawyer, said the case is a good example of how pardons can be successful.
“I’m a former DA (district attorney) and have been doing criminal defense work for decades in Wisconsin, and I know that sometimes the system can benefit from the opportunity to use a pardon,” he said.
Relles said other avenues created in recent years, such as veterans court and legislation expanding expungement, weren’t available 15 years ago.
Thanks to the pardon, the 2004 incident is no longer a concern.
“In the past, people who were given pardons went on to do fabulous things. They changed their own lives, changed the lives of their family and changed the community,” Relles said.
“When you give deserving people a second chance, it’s amazing what they can do in their community.”
Pizer plans to apply for jobs at local police departments in hopes of getting his dream job. While there are no guarantees, he’s happy to finally have a shot.
“All I’ve been asking for this entire time is a chance. I don’t want anything to be handed to me ... that’s what these whole 15 years have been about,” he said. “I just wanted the chance to go after this career I’ve always wanted.”
That second chance begins now.
“I told them that if I was given a second chance, they would not regret it—that I would spend the rest of my life serving the state of Wisconsin and doing whatever it takes to make the place I live a better place.”