On Jan. 17, 2022, Command Sgt. Maj. Justin Shad, 15th Military Police Brigade, voluntarily enrolled in Signature Psychiatric Hospital’s month-long Valor veterans-focused inpatient program to treat alcoholism.
Despite his initial doubts, he completed rehabilitation and shared his decision with friends on social media. He now shares his experience to encourage others who may be struggling to find help.
Shad said before he joined the military in 1996, he drank socially. He clarified that while military service is not a cause of alcoholism, military culture occasionally promotes alcohol consumption.
“I slowly fell into a cycle where I relied on alcohol,” he said. “It pretty much morphed throughout my career, but really the last five years, I was out of control.”
Eleven criteria characterize Alcohol Use Disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, including the amount of alcohol consumed, interest in or abstaining from drinking, failure to fulfill obligations, alcohol use despite hazards, tolerance and withdrawal patterns.
“I knew for years that I had a drinking problem, but I was in denial,” Shad said. “I was in denial because in my mind I was in control of my life. … I had a successful career, I had a house… a beautiful, supportive wife and family.”
He said he didn’t view someone with an addiction as someone in his position because he believed he could control his addiction; he wasn’t ready to admit he had a problem.
Shad said he gradually developed health problems, including stomach issues that accumulated into an overall feeling that he was tired of drinking. He said, although drinking affected his personal life, realizing the need for lifestyle changes at home catalyzed his interest in treatment.
“People talk about rock bottom or something happened where they knew they needed help. It is weird for me because nothing happened. I didn’t get in any trouble. For me, it was a combination of years of (indicators).”
Shad explained he had visited Behavioral Health at Gentry Clinic regularly to manage his mental health, but he had not shared his drinking habits. He said he felt a voice inside him considering help despite his denial. Shad said he reached out to an old platoon sergeant, whom he knew had completed a rehabilitation program in Kansas City, to ask about the treatment, and subsequently enrolled in the Valor inpatient program.
“I did it voluntarily, and to be quite honest … I didn’t know going into the program if it was going to work for one, and then secondly, I didn’t know if I even wanted to really quit drinking.”
Shad said the most challenging part of rehabilitation was understanding his own motivation for drinking. He said he feared returning to addictive behaviors after treatment.
Shad said the Valor program, designed for active-duty military, first responders and veterans, consists of 28 days of inpatient treatment and 14 days of outpatient care. He said the program teaches patients about alcoholism as a disorder and provides tools to cope with stressors without alcohol. He said the Valor program also demonstrates techniques against stressors from concurrent disorders, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“They really teach you how to change your lifestyle in every aspect, as far as filling that time that you have with other activities. In all reality, when you start becoming sober, your mental health changes as well. The clarity in your head changes,” Shad said. “It’s hard to explain, but when you drink as much as I was drinking at the time, it was like coming out of a tunnel … everything is clear in life.”
Shad said another aspect of successfully treating alcohol addiction is building an external support system. He intentionally shared his enrollment in Valor on Facebook for his own accountability and for transparency about the importance of seeking treatment. Shad acknowledged that in his position as a brigade command sergeant major, he expected criticism. To his surprise, he said soldiers of all ranks reached out to him in reference to his initial post, sharing similar concerns with alcohol, asking questions and encouraging him through his experience.
He said the support encouraged him to continue to be open about seeking treatment on social media and in person as a means to invite more support for himself and those around him.
“People need to understand that reaching out for help is a strong thing to do, and it takes a lot of courage to do it, and at the same time it sets the example for the younger soldiers when they see their leaders,” Shad said.
“We’re all human beings in the Army right? A lot of times we forget that because we are so wrapped up in the mission or in the position we’re in. (When) our subordinates look at us in that position, we need to be able to say ‘I’ve got to take a knee,’ reach out and get help.”
BATTLING THE STIGMA
According to the results of the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, nearly seven in 10 adults with a substance use disorder struggled with alcohol use in 2020. The statistics carry over for service members, as more than 1.7 million of 2.4 million veterans with a substance use disorder struggle with alcoholism. For scale, more than half of veterans over the age of 18 reported drinking in June of 2020, or within a month of taking the survey.
It is common for those struggling with substance abuse disorders to experience concurrent mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression and PTSD. In 2020, 17 million adults — 1.1 million veterans — struggled with both a substance abuse disorder and a diagnosed mental illness. The study highlighted existing research that suggests those who struggle with mental illness are more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder, and separately those who struggle with substance abuse of any one substance risk developing a substance use disorder for another.
The survey results also note that of the 2.4 million veterans with a substance use disorder, those who sought treatment received care at an outpatient mental health center, outpatient rehabilitation center or a self-help group. The results highlighted a 2008 study suggesting minimized concerns over stigmatization increase the popularity of self-help groups.
“There’s still a stigma in the military. We’ve come a long way since I’ve been in; I’ve been in 26 years, and I’ve seen changes, but there’s still this stigma. Soldiers view it as ‘If I reach out for help, I’m weak’ or ‘If I reach out for help, my leadership is going to look at me in a negative light.’ That is what I’m trying to prevent, that stigma, and I’m trying to prevent other people from suffering with addiction for as long as I did without getting help.”
Shad said although there are situations similar to his own in which there was no climatic moment that led to treatment, other service members reach out after receiving an Article 15 or being charged with Driving Under the Influence.
He said if leaders can understand how to look for signs in soldiers, regardless of their rank, they can help someone seek treatment before serious issues arise. Shad said peers had recognized habits of alcoholism in him before he realized them himself. He said he had conversations with two leaders about seeking help but explained he wasn’t ready to find resources at the time.
He said he sees this in others now. When someone reaches out to Shad to explain their suspected alcohol addiction, he offers advice but said they have to be ready to seek resources themselves. He said when someone gets help, their treatment sets a motivational example for others struggling.
Shad emphasized the role leaders play in this example. He said while leaders often remove their personal struggles from a conversation, sharing an experience — especially in reference to alcoholism, addiction and PTSD — creates an opportunity to identify a path for treatment. He said although the conversations are uncomfortable, they may benefit someone long-term and possibly save a life.
For those reflecting inward, Shad suggests reaching out to the professionals at Gentry Clinic’s Preventative Medicine and Behavioral Health and the Army Substance Abuse Program.
“They are the professionals that can point soldiers in the right direction if they’re struggling with alcohol,” Shad said.
“That’s what soldiers need to realize, too — everyone is going to face an issue that they can’t handle on their own, and they’re going to have to reach out to someone. Whether that be the chaplain, mental health, substance abuse or the ASAP program through Gentry. Everyone is going to face something, and too many times I think (with) soldiers, it’s that old school mentality where you suck it up or you bottle it up. It builds up over time, sometimes for years and before you know it, you’re going down this destructive road of, in my case and a lot of cases, I think, self-medicating through alcohol, because that’s what we do.
Since rehabilitation, Shad reminds himself that sobriety is counted 24 hours at a time, and he continues to offer advice to others considering help.
“I actually feel like I’ve started a whole new life. It’s hard to put into words because for so long, I lived in the chains of alcohol addiction,” Shad said. “I was living in a constant state of fear and I was not in control. I thought I was in control of my life, but I wasn’t and now that I’ve achieved sobriety, it’s not always easy but it’s do-able … your whole world changes.”
He said although his alcohol intake physically damaged his body, sobriety feels inexplicably different. He said he feels free to do things he hadn’t previously experienced.
“For those who are suffering or think they’re suffering, or they’re suffering like I was but they don’t want to admit it yet, sobriety is achievable. You’ve got to want it, and living life sober is a hell of a lot better than living life battling addiction in any way, shape or form.”