By Victor Junger
Updated August 06, 1979 12:00 PM

The two most nonsensical statements I have ever heard,” says Navy Capt. Joseph Pursch, M.D., “are (1) ‘Alcohol doesn’t affect me’ and (2) ‘I understand how the Pentagon works.’ ”

Pursch, 50, a psychiatrist, is qualified to speak on both subjects. As a sailor, he recalls when the official line was, “There are no alcoholics in the Navy.” As a doctor, he heads the Alcohol Rehabilitation Service at the Navy’s Long Beach (Calif.) Regional Medical Center. It treats 600 alcoholics a year.

Most of the patients come from the Navy, Marines and Coast Guard, and three-fourths return to active duty. What has earned Pursch and his colleagues national attention is their recent rehabilitation of three prominent civilians—Mrs. Betty Ford, Sen. Herman Talmadge and Billy Carter.

“They gave us national visibility,” acknowledges Pursch, a qualified pilot with 19 years in service. “When there’s a VIP here, we get up to 225 letters a day.” The three celebrities needed approval of the Navy to be admitted and had to pay about $250 a day. Otherwise they were handled the same as other patients.

Pursch uses a variety of techniques: group therapy; counseling by recovering alcoholics; visits to local AA chapters; Antabuse, a drug that causes nausea when mixed with alcohol; exercise; a ban on TV (to prevent viewing of scenes that glamorize drinking), and confinement to hospital grounds for the first two weeks. Patients, even the famous ones, are also assigned to clean-up duties. When Betty Ford entered the hospital in April 1978, she objected to sharing a four-bed room. In her book, The Times of My Life, she recalls that Dr. Pursch told her, “If you insist on a private room, I will have all these ladies move out.” Mrs. Ford relented.

Pursch also enlists family, friends and bosses—even to the point of having them attend group therapy sessions—to make sure the alcoholic will get support after discharge. (The doctor discreetly won’t reveal whether any relative of his celebrity patients was involved in the program, but Mrs. Ford wrote in her book that her husband spent two weeks with her at the center.)

Pursch rejects one classic approach to treating alcoholics. “I don’t go into psychoanalysis,” Pursch declares. “While everyone is talking to the patient about what happened at age 7, he keeps on drinking. If a person is bleeding, you don’t go back to find out why he was stabbed. You stop the bleeding.”

The Navy, Pursch notes, treats nearly 18,000 patients annually at more than 80 alcoholic centers worldwide. But before the first facility was opened in 1965, its attitude was to deny the problem existed. Pursch became involved in the medical specialty while serving as a flight surgeon on the carrier Forrestal. “I got interested in life-styles that didn’t work,” he recalls. He took over at Long Beach in 1973 and has traveled more than 200,000 miles lecturing on three continents.

Born in Chicago, Pursch was taken to Yugoslavia by his parents at 18 months. He came back 16 years later and settled in Detroit with $6 in his pocket and not a word of English in his head. He learned fast. “I started at the top,” he jokes, “as a window washer.” When that paled as a career, he talked himself into Wayne State University without a high school diploma and then went to Indiana University School of Medicine. He entered the Navy after graduation.

His own life-style has room for a bit of alcohol. “Yes,” he says, “I drink socially. What I drink depends on what I feel like at the moment.” Pursch and his wife, Irene, married 28 years, have four children, ages 19 to 23, all of whom indulge in an occasional glass of wine. “They never get lectures on drinking,” says Pursch. “But I do say, ‘Be responsible for yourselves.’ ”

His patients—VIPs included—have to learn that too. They all lie, he once observed: “It’s the denial of the disease, and all alcoholics go that way, from millionaires to paupers, from a Supreme Court justice to a dogcatcher, a corporal to an admiral.”