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Our hero, twice

February 27, 2012
by William Cope Moyers
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It’s not often society can claim one hero twice for different reasons. Washington and the nation lost just such a hero when Col. Lewis Melvin Schulstad was laid to rest in Tahoma National Cemetery.

Col. Schulstad was 93. His passing garnered little attention beyond his intimate circle of family, friends and fellow veterans who gathered for his memorial service at American Legion Memorial Park in Everett (Wash.), even though his remarkable life impacted hundreds of thousands of people across the country and around the world.

He was a genuine war hero, a combat veteran of the air battles over Europe in the Second World War. His courage was matched only by his service to his country. We should all admire such men, who were young once and had so much to live for but sacrificed the halcyon days of their youth—and often their lives—for America and the freedom of other nations too.

Col. Schulstad flew 44 combat missions as the commanding pilot of a Boeing B-17, even though he could have gone “home” after 25 missions and the average survival rate of bomber crews was about five missions. In fact, his memorial service coincided with the 69th anniversary (Jan. 23, 1943) of the day Col. Schulstad missed work with a bad cold. He stayed behind in the base infirmary as his plane and a replacement pilot flew the mission over France and was shot down. Seven of the 10 men died.

How fickle is fate. How uneven is grace.

Col. Schulstad always marveled that he survived the war, and not just because the enemy was trying to kill him every day for a couple of years. It turns out another foe just as lethal as the Germans, but a bit more subtle, was stalking him too; alcohol.

For 20 more years after World War II alcohol waged war on Col. Schulstad until one day in 1965, when an incident involving top secret documents, a blackout and a hangover in a hotel near the Pentagon finally convinced him it was time to stop.

He recounted: “I called the Army chaplain and said, ‘I am here. I am a full colonel. I am very drunk, I am very sick, I’ve got lots of trouble and I need help.” The chaplain hooked him up with a couple of men who were very different than him in so many ways, but were fundamentally like him in one very important way—they too were alcoholics who had found the answer to their problem and were willing to help him with his. “Be honest, be accountable,” they told him. And he did.

Schulstad spent the rest of his life giving back to people just like him. He was unselfish and unrelenting in this mission. Mel was as comfortable working with homeless alcoholics at the Matt Talbott Rescue and Recovery Center in downtown Seattle as he was in front of small groups in Everett or thousands of people in Minneapolis sharing his own experience, strength and hope at gatherings of recovering alcoholics everywhere.

He was also the founding president of the National Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors (NAADAC). Schulstad knew that to overcome the stigma and legitimize treatment of addiction as a chronic illness, it was imperative to legitimize the counselors and other professionals who worked with the afflicted. The association did just that, and lives on today as a voice for treating them not just with dignity and respect, but with professionalism.

Somewhere along our way that’s where I met Mel, and though our friendship spanned only a sliver of his long life his influence is a cornerstone of mine. He encouraged me to speak out publicly about alcoholism and recovery, not to be deterred by the stigma or by other people in recovery who feel it is wrong for us to share our stories in the open. So Mel’s been my personal hero in recovery.

About a month before he died I visited Mel at his bedside. His eyes remained closed during the short hour we were together. It was difficult for him to talk. His sentences were short and shaky.

I read to him from one of the most oft-quoted passages of the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous, the chapter called “How It Works.” When I got to the sentence, “Remember that we deal with alcohol…cunning, baffling and powerful,” suddenly he interrupted me.

“I sure did drink my share of alcohol in my life,” Mel said.

“Yes you did,” I replied.

“You sure did drink your share of alcohol too,” he said.

It’s true, we did. Alcohol should have killed both of us a long time ago, more than once. Why, I asked him, why did we make it, why did we find recovery?

There was a long pause. Mel knew the answer before he could articulate it.

“God Almighty saw us through it all so we could tell others the story of our lives.”

And then he told me to go. He was tired.

What a story Mel told of his life. What a life Mel’s story was, too.