Four years ago, Turlock resident Kenneth Shipman no longer wanted to live. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in the U.S. military, years of mental distress had led to substance abuse issues and court cases, which in turn alienated him from his family, his friends, his job and life as he knew it.
Shipman led sheriff’s deputies on a chase in April 2016 which ended with his vehicle crashing into a high-voltage Turlock Irrigation District facility; he was driving under the influence and had hoped that the crash would kill him. When it didn’t, he fled the scene wishing that the officers would shoot him.
Shipman wasn’t shot, but was arrested. A day he had originally thought would be the end of his life turned into something miraculous when he went to court for the incident, where he was given a lifeline. Instead of serving five years in prison, he had the chance to complete the Stanislaus County Veterans Treatment Court program — an inter-agency collaborative, non-adversarial therapeutic justice program for veterans in the criminal justice system who suffer from PTSD or other psychological symptoms as a result of having served.
On Oct. 19 of this year, Shipman graduated from the program after fighting a different battle than the one he served in overseas — a battle against himself.
“It was like a curtain had been drawn over my eyes. I couldn’t see myself clearly. I didn’t know who I was,” Shipman said of life back home after serving a decade in the military.
A varsity athlete at Turlock High School, Shipman graduated in 2000 and enlisted after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. He went on active duty in 2002 and served for a total of 10 years.
“When I became a soldier, it was like I finally figured out what I wanted to do. It came naturally. I excelled,” Shipman said. “And then I went to war.”
Shipman suffered many a lonely night while on active duty and was only able to call home once a month at the most. He saw and experienced things which still give him nightmares to this day, he said, but is much better at coping with those emotions now after completing the VTC program. Still, when he first returned home, he struggled.
The most common symptoms of PTSD are summarized by the American Psychiatric Association as intrusive thoughts, avoiding reminders of trauma, negative thoughts or feelings, and reactive symptoms, like angry outbursts and reckless behavior. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, between 11 and 20% of veterans who served in operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have PTSD in a given year. About 12% of Gulf War veterans suffer from the disorder and about 30% of Vietnam veterans.
Shipman fell into an addiction so deep it cost him his job and his home. He would go to the bar and get drunk, just looking for someone to antagonize into a fight. Before long, the criminal charges began to pile up — a result of not only the power PTSD held over his life, but also his inexperience in how to deal with such intense emotions, memories and delusions.
“Every now and then, in a drunken stupor of violence, there were glimpses of who I am. Glimpses in the mirror of things people would say,” Shipman said. “When you’re afraid in the military, you either turn around and use it for strength or you find a new job. During these glimpses, I could see that when I wake up, I have a choice of who I want the world to see.”
It was that attitude Shipman took with him into the VCT program. Throughout the last four years, Shipman has completed 52 weeks of anger management, 16 weeks of co-parenting classes, six months in intensive outpatient treatment, five months in the men’s trauma recovery program, four months in the First Step addiction program, moral reconation therapy and 18 months of DUI classes.
In addition, Shipman completed over 3,000 hours of therapy and maintained his sobriety — with very few hiccups — over the last four years. While there is no cure for PTSD, Shipman said he’s more in control of his emotions today than he’s ever been. He doesn’t blame himself for who he couldn’t save, and he is able to remain calm throughout the day instead of under attack from an enemy oceans away. There’s one thing that keeps him grounded through it all, he said.
“For guys like me, you try not to think about it, but it’s intrusive thoughts. They just come,” Shipman said, adding, “I think of my daughter’s smile. I think about how I’ll see her soon and she’s going to be smiling.”
The VCT program continues to provide life-changing — and in Shipman’s case, life-saving — opportunity for veterans in Stanislaus County who suffer from traumatic brain injuries, PTSD and other issues and end up in trouble with the criminal justice system. Shipman urged other veterans who also suffer from PTSD to seek help sooner rather than later.
“Once I learned that there’s not necessarily a cure but that there are coping mechanisms out there, I realized I didn’t have to punch someone when I was angry or grab a beer when I felt down. They have great counselors who are also vets,” Shipman said. “I would ask other veterans going through this to challenge themselves not to hurt themselves anymore by hurting the people around them. I would show them that there is hope.”