After seeing ‘underbelly of war,’ Texas veteran pursues counseling career
Retired Sgt. 1st Class Shawn Conrad has seen someone get hit in the head with a machete when he was deployed on a peacekeeping mission in Haiti. He’s seen someone get cut in half from an explosion when he was in Iraq. He also has had rockets scream past his head and then explode nearby.
It’s no wonder that Conrad, a 45-year-old Army veteran now living in El Paso, suffers from post-traumatic stress, anxiety and a little depression.
“I also have some anger issues,” he said.
But Conrad wants to turn that experience into a positive and help his fellow veterans who have come back from Iraq or Afghanistan with their own mental health issues.
Conrad is studying to become a counselor and one day hopes to work for one of the branches of the military or the Veterans Affairs Department.
“The reason I chose mental health counseling is I have experience in it,” he said.
With the education he is getting at the University of Phoenix and his own personal experience, his ultimate goal is to help others who are going through the same things, he said.
Conrad served more than 20 years in the Army and was never wounded, but during four deployments he saw enough of the nasty underbelly of war and so-called peacekeeping missions that he still suffers from significant side effects from his time in the service.
Conrad got some professional help, namely some counseling, which has helped him manage his symptoms.
“I don’t think it ever goes away,” said Conrad, who has lived in El Paso since 2004 when he ended up here at Fort Bliss for what was his last duty station. “You learn to live with it. You figure out ways to combat it yourself. When I feel myself being anxious, I know if I get away from wherever I am at, I can calm myself down before it gets out of control.”
Conrad is working on a master’s degree in counseling/mental health counseling at the University of Phoenix’s Santa Teresa, N.M., campus.
He has three more academic classes left and then 700 internship hours that need to be set up through the university.
He estimates he will finish up his degree around March 2015.
Rebecca Robles is the Santa Teresa campus chairwoman for the College of Social Sciences.
“I think Shawn is a great example of someone transitioning out of the military and retiring and choosing a career that is so noble and wanting to help his fellow veterans and military personnel,” Robles said. “I can’t say enough good things about him. He really exemplifies a person seeking a counseling degree for all the right reasons.”
During his military career, Conrad served as a military police noncommissioned officer. He deployed to Kuwait in 1991 right after the Gulf War, to Haiti in 1995, Bosnia in 1996 and to Iraq in 2005.
The post-traumatic stress he has battled was a cumulative thing from his military career and not the result of a single incident, he said.
While at Fort Bliss, he served in the 93rd Military Police Battalion in several capacities, including platoon sergeant, operations sergeant and assistant battalion operations NCO.
After retiring from the Army in 2008, he worked as an instructor/facilitator with the Advanced Leader Course-Common Core at the United States Army Sergeants Major Academy at Fort Bliss. He left that position in January 2014 to concentrate on his studies. He also got married in January to Haixiao “Lili” Li, who is originally from China but has lived in El Paso for the past 22 years. Li had previously owned several restaurants in El Paso. Conrad is working with her to open a new place called CoLi Wok & Grille, which will open on Remcon Circle in West El Paso later this year.
Conrad grew up in The Woodlands, Texas, from the seventh grade on and considers himself a Texan. He requested Fort Bliss as a duty station at the end of his career because he wanted to retire here. He likes El Paso’s dry desert climate, he said.
“I would tell any veteran or anybody – they don’t have to be a veteran – who is suffering from any type of illness to get professional help,” Conrad said. “If you don’t get the experts involved… I always wondered why I was acting this way or why this happened. Until you actually talk to someone, you’ll never figure it out and it will never get better. If you are talking about mental illness, you may not be able to fix it, but you can develop tools to manage it.
“If you don’t talk to the experts and figure out how, you’re never going to get to a point where you can live a viable life.”
David Burge may be reached at 546-6126 or on on Twitter @dburge1962.