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Faces of an Epidemic: Stories of the Victims of America’s Opioid Crisis — and the Fight to Save Lives

By @stevehelling and

Jack and Hunt Freeman were Texas brothers with a lot going for them. Hunt, 26, was a charismatic salesman at a Harley Davidson shop; Jack, 29, worked as a golf assistant at an upscale country club.

But the two also liked to party with alcohol and recreational drugs — first using marijuana and cocaine in high school and, later, moving on to heroin.

The brothers entered rehab multiple times, but neither could stay clean for long. On Valentine’s Day, Hunt fatally overdosed, sending Jack into a drug-fueled tailspin.

Three months later he overdosed, too.

“I wouldn’t want anyone to go through what we’ve been through,” their mother, Kim Freeman, tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue in a special report on the opioid crisis in America.

“To lose two children,” Freeman says, “is unimaginable.”

Heroin and other opioids are claiming lives throughout the U.S. at a staggering rate. According to the Centers for Disease Control, drug overdoses now kill more Americans than either guns or car accidents: 52,000 in 2015 alone, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

One person dies of an overdose every 10 minutes.

The vast majority of those deaths, approximately 80 percent, have taken place in white communities. Experts suggest this is in part because white Americans generally have better access to health care and are more likely to be prescribed narcotics, and research shows that four in five heroin users first abused prescription pills.

People become addicted to drugs such as OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin while being treated for a medical condition and then seek out more pills — or heroin — on the street when their prescription runs out.

“This problem of addiction truly does start in the medicine cabinet,” Russ Baer, a special agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration, tells PEOPLE. “It starts with the misuse and abuse of prescription opioid painkillers.”

A few of the people who overdosed on opioids in America (left to right, starting from top left): Katie Golden, 17; Garrett Moody, 27; Alison Collins, 22; Clyde Henderson, 62; Jacklyn Mastromauro, 29; Robert Mapps, 22; William Godwin II, 47; Samantha Roser, 23; Wolf Schinzel Sr., 47; Analicia Sutherland, 21; Ethan Beck, 26; Constance Crawford, 24; Ashley Nunnally, 26; Richard Cosner, 30; Celeste Tumminello, 25; Bryan Clay, 27; Jessica Caruso, 36 and Jack Freeman, 29.

What addiction is not, according to one retired police commander, is “a character flaw.”

The death rate from overdoses of heroin and prescription painkillers has more than quadrupled since 1999, prompting thousands of Americans to take action, including Philadelphia librarian Chera Kowalski and Stop the Heroin co-founder Bill Schmincke.

Kowalski, 33, was raised by parents who faced their own struggles with heroin. After witnessing an overdose on library property, she was trained, along with 25 other staffers, to administer Narcan, a nasal spray used for the emergency treatment of opioid overdoses.

In the past year she says she has saved six lives — providing six more chances for recovery.

“Once we can tell the Narcan works, there’s a huge sense of relief,” she says. “It provides me with hope that if they live, they have the opportunity to seek treatment, because long-term recovery is possible.”

Schmincke, 52, of Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey, began the nonprofit Stop the Heroin with his wife, Tammy, after watching son Steven spiral from occasional marijuana use into a severe opioid addiction that landed him in rehab several times.

“He was a good kid; the drugs just got him,” Schmincke says.

“We’re about awareness now,” he says of their organization, which helps people transition from rehab to sober living. “We’d like to bring light to people who don’t understand addiction. They think these people out there are junkies and drug addicts, which they’re not. They’re in the grasp of a demon.”