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Saturday, October 02, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Military man found 2nd job in recovery

By Michael Burnham
Seattle Times Eastside bureau

MIKE SIEGEL / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Mel Schulstad, a highly decorated retired Air Force colonel and national ambassador for alcohol recovery, was honored recently by two national groups for his lifetime work in addiction recovery.
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At age 86, retired Air Force Col. Mel Schulstad is still a shined-shoes military man.

Ask the Sammamish resident to speak to an audience, and chances are he'll show up early with a crisp shirt and tie and a firm handshake. Even without the eagles on his shoulders, he commands respect.

But he hasn't always been about discipline.

"Bad ... bad was the word that I was," he confessed recently with a John Wayne intonation.

It was May 1965, and Schulstad was preparing to speak at a conference at Langley Air Force Base, near Norfolk, Va. He walked into the officers' club in full military uniform, after five days of traveling and a couple of quarts of whiskey and beer. The bar didn't open for an hour, but he wanted a drink to take the edge off.

He ordered up a military chaplain instead.

"I said to myself, 'This has got to stop,' " he recalled. "I had come to the end of my rope."

It was the alcohol that was left hanging that day. Schulstad hasn't had a drink since.

By attending alcoholism-recovery meetings, he began a 39-year journey. He told his story repeatedly, and others listened. Before the days of a myriad of self-help books and counseling clinics, people sought out the man with a chest full of ribbons for advice about a disease people didn't often discuss nor understand.

In the military, even top generals can be alcoholics, he said. "The higher up you go, the more cover you've got."
 
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So he attempted to close what he considers alcoholism's "gap of ignorance" in churches, in lecture halls, in books. The more he told his story, the more he learned about himself.

On Sept. 22, the Johnson Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based drug and alcoholism awareness organization, honored Schulstad and seven others for their pioneering work in addiction recovery. A week earlier, Schulstad spoke at the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence's annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

In total, Schulstad has won 10 local and national awards for his work in the addiction-recovery movement.

"He was at the dawn of the professionalization of our field," said Johnny Allem, president of the Johnson Institute.

In 1972, Schulstad helped found the National Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors — now known as NAADAC — a certification organization for addiction counselors.

In 1981, he wrote the forward to "Under the Influence," which is widely regarded as the seminal book in the modern treatment of alcoholism.

After spending five years in D.C. as an accredited counselor, Schulstad moved to Minneapolis and the San Francisco Bay Area, where he worked for recovery organizations. He moved to Sammamish in 1986 and served on the state's Citizens Advisory Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse for eight years.

Alcoholism recovery meetings are still a part of his life.

"I've not recovered," he said. "I'm recovering, and I'll be recovering the rest of my life."

Born in Duluth, Minn., in 1918 as the youngest of 10 children, Louis Melvin Schulstad spent most of his youth in Reynolds, N.D. He began drinking at age 15, when he sometimes stole money out of his grandfather's cash register to pay for his habit. He kept it a secret; his grandmother was a member of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union.

He attended college for a year at the University of North Dakota, which kicked him out for not attending classes. Hangovers, Schulstad reasoned.

He enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1939, wanting a chance to fly. As the pilot of a B-17 bomber during World War II, Schulstad flew 44 missions over France and Germany. He was twice awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for valor in combat. It was a penchant for taking charge of a situation that helped him advance from the rank of private to colonel in a 27-year military career.

"I like being the boss," he confessed.

Schulstad is currently president of the Alliance for Recovery, a Seattle-based nonprofit that promotes alcoholism awareness. Additionally, he counsels downtown Seattle homeless about spiritual-based recovery from addition.

There, he's a veteran in every sense of the word.

"You don't recover from addiction by taking pills," he said. "You recover spiritually; it's a disease of body, mind and spirit."

Michael Burnham: 206-464-2243

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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