"It's a long fight, but one I think we can win," Norman Hooten tells PEOPLE

By Susan Keating
August 01, 2018 05:14 PM
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Mark D'Andrea, Orlando VA Medical Center

A legendary warfighter who was made famous in the 2002 film, Black Hawk Down, is now engaged in a campaign to defeat an insidious national enemy: opioid addiction.

Former Delta Force operator Norman Hooten, who fought in the brutal 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, is using his freshly earned doctorate of pharmacy to help patients at the Veterans Administration.

“Norman Hooten’s dedication and commitment to serving his fellow veterans is what VA is all about,” says newly installed VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, in one of his first statements to the media after being sworn into office.

At age 57, retired Army Master Sergeant Hooten arrived at his new career the hard way, through personal loss. Two men who served with Hooten in Mogadishu survived the battle, only to later die from issues related to substance abuse.

“It really gutted me,” Hooten told PEOPLE. “I had deep love and respect for those guys. Losing them was hard for me to accept.”

The turmoil led Hooten to return to a pursuit he suspended years earlier.

In August 2001, Hooten retired from the Army, which he loved being a part of. His wife, Bonnie, suggested he try her own line of work as a pharmacist. The newly civilian Hooten began pharmacy school. A month later, in response to the September 11 attacks, he was recalled to active duty. He later converted to doing government security work.

“I felt like we all needed to do something,” Hooten said. “It was my way of putting my life on hold and helping.”

While working overseas, Hooten saw drug use among contractors — and his own battle buddies, who died.

Combat death is tragic, but understandable, Hooten says. Drug-related loss is not.

“When they come home and die of opioid overdose, I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I started to realize how bad the opioid epidemic was,” Hooten said. “I decided to do something about it.”

Norman Hooten
Mark D'Andrea, Orlando VA Medical Center

Hooten returned to the United States and, at age 52, resumed his pharmacy studies — this time, with passion.

After graduation, Hooten did his residency at the West Palm Beach VA Medical Center in Florida. There, he once again was surprised at the scope of opioid addiction.

“I knew it was a big problem but didn’t know how big it was until I got into the VA as an intern and saw how many people are effected by this,” Hooten says.

Hooten was impressed by the VA’s efforts to fight the scourge. “They’re committed to this,” he says. “They’re going to be the ones to find a solution.”

Wanting to be be part of that effort, Hooten took a job as a pharmacist at the Orlando VA Medical Center.

Fans of the Black Hawk Down film recognize Hooten as the over-the-top tough warfighter who memorably said his trigger finger is the safety switch on his rifle. Former comrades hold him in high esteem.

“Norm Hooten is one of the great soldiers of this war, and a true hero of our nation,” says military historian and Army veteran James Lechner, who fought alongside Hooten in Mogadishu.

At the VA, though, patients usually don’t realize they are dealing with a man who, among other operations, fought sustained ferocious combat in Mogadishu.

“My first patient said, ‘you can’t stand in my shoes, you’ve never been through combat,’ ” Hooten tells PEOPLE. When the pharmacist gently explained that he, too, was a combat vet, the patient started to listen. “It established a trust,” Hooten says.

“Most of the time they come and go and never know I’ve been in combat,” Hooten says. “The only time I share is if they say I couldn’t possibly understand what they’ve been through. Most of the time I like to keep it that way.”

He prefers to focus on fighting addiction. In light of the lengthy time the nation has been at war, he expects a sustained engagement.

“This is something that’s going to take a long time,” Hooten says. “It’s a long fight, but one I think we can win.”

The VA, for its part, would like to see others emulate Hooten’s example.

“Other Veterans should consider following his lead — to Choose VA as a great place to work and give back to our nation’s heroes,” Wilkie says.

For Hooten, his new mission echoes the ethos from his “Why do you do it?” speech in Black Hawk Down. In the speech, a fresh-from-combat Hooten immediately returns to the fight, explaining to another soldier that the only reason he fights is for the warriors next to him.

“This is important stuff to me,” Hooten tells PEOPLE. “I made a decision. I was pretty comfortable sitting on my couch. I’m committed to doing this.

“I’m excited about a new opportunity to serve. I can’t run as fast as I used to or shoot as straight, but I can do other things.”