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Anti-Drug Counselor Wu Yu-chou

Rescuing 'Spirits in Danger'


Rescuing 'Spirits in Danger'


A senior military instructor leads a 21-day extreme expedition up eight of Taiwan's most challenging mountains. The goal: to change the lives of troubled youths caught up in drug abuse.



Rescuing 'Spirits in Danger'

By Yu Chang-Shan
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 498 )

This year it is the turn of the Ministry of Education to organize the "National Drug Control Conference."

In the past, cutting-edge writers like Giddens Ko or popular entertainers served as conference spokespeople, but they had a tough time effectively getting the "anti-drug" message across to young people already caught up in the world of illegal drugs. Recently, however, the Ministry of Education's Department of Military Training Education has begun offering a new prescription for the problem, after finding that "concern coupled with companionship" was the most effective "say no to drugs" strategy.

And the people the ministry is sending out to help kids turn their backs on drugs are senior military instructors who have spent half their lives in the military saddle. Casting aside their stern military bearing, they have adopted the role of "godfathers," encouraging and caring for troubled kids 24 hours a day. Perhaps foremost among them is Colonel Wu Yu-chou, a program supervisor from New Taipei City who retired from the military just last year.

Wu's approach has now spread to Ministry of Education field offices in 22 cities and counties throughout the country.

"We all look at him as a role model," says Wang Guo-hsin, the ministry's program supervisor for Pingdong County.

Reaching Young Drug Abusers through Extreme Sports

The group of eight adult counselors and 12 second-year junior-high kids has fallen into formation. They are preparing to head out on a 21-day expedition along Section 2 of the Central Mountain Range's Southern Trail. The expedition's leader, 52 year-old Wu Yu-chou, suddenly notices two major cracks in the eyeglass lenses of a 14 year-old nicknamed Gongzai (literally, "Figurine," a reference to his diminutive stature).

"Why are you wearing broken eyeglasses?" Wu asks.

Apparently, another camper had stepped on them the previous evening. Wu further notices that the frames are held together with wire.

"These are my sister's glasses," Gongzai stammers. Wu inquires as to the whereabouts of the sister. "I don't know," Gongzai responds. Wu knows not to even bother asking the whereabouts of the parents.

Without another word, Wu takes Gongzai down the mountain to an eyeglass shop in Taidong to pick up a brand new pair for the kid, with prescription lenses of -6 diopters for myopia and -3 for astigmatism. In the five years Gongzai has worn the broken glasses his sister left behind, his vision has steadily deteriorated.

"The glasses are a gift from me to him. I can't file for expenses," Wu intentionally trumpets, expecting at the very least a mumbled thank you from Gongzai.

Gongzai fixes his eyes on Wu for five seconds before speaking: "Counselor, from now on if you have something for me to do just say so." Although it's a "fairly cold" reaction, Wu is beaming inside: he's managed to break the ice with this youth entangled in ketamine abuse.

In the three weeks of grueling mountain climbing that ensue, Gongzai will become Wu’s inside man. Whenever one of the other kids is planning on trying for a runner in the middle of the night, Wu has already gotten wind of it and taken the necessary precautions to prevent it. None of the troubled kids must be lost, and none is.

The kids under Wu's grip this week are 12 "spirits in danger." In the eyes of society at large, these are just a bunch of "young drug punks." But the Department of Military Training Education has decided it would be worthwhile to pursue a program akin to the "adventure education" model used in the United States, taking mountain climbing to the extreme by scaling eight of Taiwan's "Top 100" mountain peaks over the course of 21 days to provide a jolt of reality to this group of youths involved in abusing "K" – ketamine, a tranquilizer usually ingested by snorting. In Taiwan, it is a class-3 controlled substance; users are not jailed but put on probation and in mandatory rehab.

Ketamine abusers of junior-high age do not encounter military instructors in the school system and the "force of law" is virtually powerless to stop them. When they encounter such problem students, school faculty, administrators and counselors often just wish they would transfer to another school.

"Drug abuse is like a virus. You start out with one in one class and then it spreads rapidly. It's really scary," says Chen Nai-yu, director of the Tzuchi Foundation's Education Development Unit, which has been sharing in a "division of labor" with the Department of Military Training Education for the past two-plus years. "Having the Department of Military Training Education move down from high schools to the junior-high level is really the correct approach. We handle the initial education aspect, and they come in and handle the rehab effort later on."

The K-abusing teens come from similar family backgrounds: abandoned by their families, with parents either dead, otherwise absent or even junkies themselves. They support themselves and their drug habits by working for adult dope dealers and engaging in a variety of criminal activities in their struggle to survive. Who has the time or inclination to deal with them?

One-on-One Counseling to Save High-risk Students

Wu Yu-chou volunteered to pioneer the effort to bring these kids back from the brink.

"The small-time peddlers first get them hooked on ketamine, then move them along toward heroin (a class-1 narcotic)," Wu observes on a rainy early spring evening in the Japanese restaurant he opened at the foot of Mt. Hutou in Taoyuan County on retiring from the military. "You try heroin once, and you're hooked. It's expensive, you're broke, and the craving sets in. What do you do? You go to work for me selling ketamine to your classmates."

The restaurant is also part of his anti-drug efforts. Wu used funds from his retirement package to bring the place to fruition through the efforts of a group of employees who were themselves former drug abusers. Today, the floor manager and head chef are both major shareholders. It's a business model patterned on the Wang Steak Group's chain of restaurants.

The alternative education program he designed for drug addicts on behalf of the Ministry of Education has been extremely effective in bringing numerous 13- and 14-year-old drug abusers back from the precipice.

Wu started out as a military policeman and during his many years of active duty honed his formidable martial arts skills, particularly a set of techniques called qinna that immobilize an opponent by locking his joints. More than a few youths have tried tangling with him only to be quickly humbled, daring not to seek a rematch.

"He's visited dozens of schools around New Taipei City, identifying high-risk groups of students at one junior high school after another," says Maj-Gen Chang Pai-cheng, director of the Taipei City Department of Education's Military Training Education Unit, one of only two generals in the military training education system. "He's brought military instructors from high schools into the junior high schools for one-on-one counseling and developed a set of counseling strategies that are now being applied in 20 different cities and counties," Chang explains, revealing esteem for this senior instructor.

Companionship Replaces Lecturing

The son of an Army financial officer who immigrated to Taiwan from China after World War II, Wu opted out of his sophomore year at his Taoyuan high school to take the placement exam for transfer to Chung Cheng Armed Forces Preparatory School the year it was founded, and he was a member of its first graduating class. Three years later he was admitted to the R.O.C. Military Academy as a Huangpu Cadet, eventually graduating 11th in his class and being assigned to the military police.

Today, hair graying, Wu speaks rapidly in a low voice with a broad smile across his face, his choice of words pointed and dexterous enough that listeners prick up their ears to listen more attentively:

"You don't worry about any of their general rudeness or coarseness. What you're looking for is whether there's been a change in their value perception. It's the value perception that is key," Wu says. "Following their logic, don't rebuke them or lecture them. Become an indispensable part of the kids' lives, a long-term companion," he continues, noting a few of the most fundamental principles of handling high-risk kids.

Yet the long leash of compassion must also have its limits. Discipline cannot be merely tossed aside. How could these teen drug abusers not have a few tricks up their sleeves?

For instance, what of the kid who got a toothache during the three-week expedition through the Central Mountain Range? A counselor took him down the mountain for dental treatment. That done, it was back up the mountain to complete the trek, no breaks, no dallying. How about the refusal to go any further, threatening suicide by jumping off a cliff? Wu simply fires one question in deadpan tone at the kid: "When you're lying mangled there at the bottom of the cliff, we're only going to be able to retrieve one bone to take back to your parents. Which one do you want that to be?" With the hard and the soft approaches working in concert, the kid is shamed into anger and continues trekking on.

The three-week ridge trek passed without mishap, thanks to Wu's professional logistical capabilities and his shuttling back and forth to personally supervise on the front lines (he was constantly up and down the mountain handling resupply duties.

At the behest of Military Training Education Department director Wang Fu-lin, Education Minister Wu Ching-ji presented the 12 youthful trekkers with honorary medals. The young "K" users had completed the first impressive feat of their lives and their value perceptions had begun to loosen up somewhat and move closer to the mainstream of society.

"We all look to Senior Instructor Wu's example, and we’re developing a high-compassion program of our own," says Col. Yang You-hsien, a program supervisor in Taoyuan County.  Some 300 km away, Pingdong County program supervisor Wang Guo-hsin echoes Yang’s words almost verbatim. They are all hoping to replicate the legend of ‘rescuing spirits in danger’ that Wu Yu-chou has forged in New Taipei.

Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy