Editor's note: WRTV Reporter Vic Ryckaert is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and a volunteer mentor in the Indianapolis Veterans Court. The court helps troubled veterans overcome the mental health and substance abuse problems that led them to commit the crimes that landed them in a Marion County courtroom. This is the story of one of those veterans.
INDIANAPOLIS — Aaron Shaw was alone with his thoughts in a solitary confinement cell when it hit him.
This was his rock bottom.
He was thinking clearly for the first time in a long time, now that the heroin had filtered out of his system. It wasn't so long ago that he took pride in himself, took pride in his U.S. Army uniform, took pride in his rank of Specialist.
There was a time when he risked his life to recover blown-up vehicles and other debris from the roads in Iraq. There was a time not long ago when his military brothers and sisters could count on him to do his job and do it well.
"I came home and was able to use that deployment as an excuse to get high," Shaw, 38, said. "I was taking pills and it turned into heroin addiction, it turned into using needles and chasing a drug every single day."
Drugs had been part of his life for as long as he remembers. He had it under control for the three-and-a-half years he served in the Army, which included a 15-month combat tour in Iraq.
Random drug tests are a regular part of Army life, so Shaw said he didn't use any drugs while he served. He said he drank a lot of alcohol during his off-duty time during those years in uniform.
He left the Army in August 2008 with an honorable discharge.
He returned home to Indianapolis and found it difficult to find work. The economy was in a nose-dive at the time. He was working construction jobs and there were none to be found.
Away from the constant order and discipline of military life, Shaw remembers it wasn't too long before he took an OxyContin on New Year's Eve 2008. It made him nauseous, but not enough to stop him from popping more pills.
Pills weren't enough so he turned to heroin. When snorting didn't get him high enough, he injected it into his veins. Shaw said he soon needed the dope just to avoid the full-body sickness of withdrawal.
He was a full-blown addict.
"I was out there, you know, doing what I could to get whatever kind of money, whatever, you know, jobs or lying, cheating, stealing to get what I needed so that I could use and not be sick," Shaw said.
He was arrested in March 2016 on misdemeanor charges of possessing a syringe and driving with a suspended license.
His case was assigned to the Indianapolis Veterans Court, a program modeled after the success of drug courts. The court helps struggling veterans deal with substance abuse and mental health problems that landed them in the justice system.
The court tried to help Shaw, connecting him with recovery services and a mentor.
Shaw wasn't ready to accept the help at first. He kept using drugs despite the court case and supervision. He racked up two new felony arrests over the next 11 months.
He was charged with felony escape in February 2017 after he cut off a GPS ankle bracelet and ran from cops in a stolen car. That's what landed Shaw in the Marion County Jail for four weeks, where he found himself alone with his thoughts in solitary confinement.
He was in jail until a bed opened up for him at a locked-down drug treatment program for veterans in Marion, Ind. That's where he said he learned how to live without drugs.
"I spent the full 90 days in Marion, and really dug in," Shaw said. "I needed to figure out what I'm going to do to get my life together. Ever since then I've been trying to use the recovery that they taught me and the tools that they've given me to be a better man."
Shaw stayed clean, maintained a job, and earned the confidence of the court. He graduated in December 2019, which meant the judge dismissed all pending charges against him.
About 380,000 veterans live in Indiana; about 43,000 live in Marion County, according to the U.S. Census.
About 16 percent of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
One study found about one in five veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression, or a brain injury.
About 5,000 veterans get arrested each year in Marion County. Veterans Court is set up to help them.
Marion Superior Court Judge David J. Certo has presided over the Veterans Court since it launched in the fall of 2015. So far, the court has seen 75 people successfully graduate from the program.
"Our goal is to help veterans achieve the same kind of success in the civilian world that they achieved in the military," Certo said.
Participation in the court is voluntary. It's only for veterans who have misdemeanors and certain felonies. There are no accused murderers in Veterans Court, but some face very serious crimes including drug offenses or fleeing from police.
Participants face more court supervision and scrutiny than a typical court. They start out appearing before the judge every week and take frequent drugs tests. The supervision eases as they gain trust and progress in the program.
Participants in the court are hooked up with a mentor, another veteran whose basic role is to listen and encourage. The court connects them with legal help, housing assistance, job placement, health services and even helps them get a free IndyGo bus card if they need transportation.
Those who accept the help, stay clean, and maintain stable jobs will see their charges dismissed when they graduate.
Shaw's charges were dismissed in December 2019, records show. A year later, he became a mentor to other Veterans Court participants.
"Aaron is a success today because Aaron chose to be sober today," Certo said. "And healthy sobriety means you're going to share it with other people who need and want it."
Shaw said recovery hasn't been easy. He's still an addict. He admits he's slipped and taken a drink at times, but he's proud to say he hasn't touched heroin since before he landed in that solitary jail cell in 2017.
"The team that I've... that I found in Vet Court, that's my family," Shaw said. "They saved my life, man. I mean literally if they wouldn't have given me the opportunity, they saved my life."
He's proud of his service, and now, he said, he's proud of his sobriety.
"I'm trying to be the example and show them that there is a way out of this," Shaw said. "It's not, it's not, you know, helpless... I mean I was the worst of the worst, I probably did more stupid things than I can ever imagine. But that's why you turn around and try to learn to live with your choices, make amends and become a better man and show the people around you who you are by actions, not just by talking."
For more information about the Indianapolis Veterans Court, contact Court Coordinator Harold Johnston at Harold.Johnston@Indy.gov or 317-327-1023.
Contact WRTV reporter Vic Ryckaert at email@example.com or on Twitter: @vicryc.