Coast Guard Veteran Shannon Layton turned her trauma into support for others
By Lori Culpepper
After enduring the devastating effects of a hospital-acquired infection that occurred soon after joining the military, Shannon Layton started down a path to improve the quality of healthcare for veterans like herself.
Layton is part of a home church group that meets in Alabaster, and she’s a part of the Alabaster American Legion Post. She has also owned businesses that were located in Alabaster, including Alabama Court Services and Alliance Community Services, two companies that served the area and surrounding communities.
A forensic nurse and social worker with a doctorate in nursing and several masters degrees, Layton works for the UAB School of Nursing as a CNL Specialty Track Coordinator and an Assistant Professor, and she is a former National VA Quality Scholars Fellow with the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
Layton’s military service goes back to the time between her junior and senior year of high school, and while she is from Alabama, she lived in Texas at the time attending a high school for Aviation Sciences. While there, she was recruited for the Coast Guard and took an opportunity to join the United States Coast Guard Reserve for an enhanced commitment of eight years, actively serving during the summers. In turn, this program paid for her to go to college.
“Since I majored in nursing and social work, and they don’t have nurses or social workers in the Coast Guard (those services are provided by the Navy), it became really clear that doing this program was the better option for me rather than going to the Coast Guard Academy. I didn’t want to major in maritime engineering,” she says. “Because I had a medical and clinical focus, I stayed in the Reserves doing a blended active- and reserve-duty program from 1987 to 1995.”
She began as a non-rated personnel officer in the Port of Houston, went on to participate in SAR operations, and became a
Boarding Officer. During this time, her Boarding partner was killed, which she says was another very traumatic event for her to go through. Although she wanted to transfer at that time, Layton needed to stay where she was and work through the pain as much as possible, which she did.
Later, she transferred into administration and trained to become a Yeoman in the Personnel Reporting Unit at Group Mobile. She was sent to district headquarters in New Orleans where she helped develop a process for transitioning to paperless service records.
In addition to the trauma she went through when her Boarding partner was killed, the hospital-acquired infection was life-changing for Layton as well, and she says it fueled her to focus her research and career on patient safety and quality and improving outcomes for veterans.
Layton is passionate about treating other veterans who have gone through trauma, and she does this alongside her husband Shane Layton. Shane is a combat veteran who works in education at the Birmingham VA Medical Center, and he’s in the process of becoming a chaplain. They have started a ministry called Battle Buddies with their two golden retrievers who serve as therapy dogs. She says they hope to raise funds for charitable causes related to mental health.
Treating mental health problems for veterans is so important, Layton says, because being in the military affects everything from your relationships with other people to your sleep. Sleep deprivation was a huge challenge for her since she was trained to stay awake. Even today, she says going to bed sometimes makes her feel like a quitter. “It’s subconsciously ingrained in you, and you don’t even realize it,” she says. “Because of your training, it’s not about you, it’s about everyone else. You don’t take care of yourself physically or mentally. That’s what you’re trained to do.”
She says there are several things she thinks most people do not understand about being a veteran, and a big one has to do with the price veterans have paid physically and mentally from training. Physically, it has to do with running in boots instead of tennis shoes and sacrificing your own well-being for the sake of others. “We pay a price with the training we endure and what it does to our bodies, but we also have to make sacrifices in our personal lives,” she says. “As a woman, especially one who is in a caring profession and as someone who really loves and cares about people, it’s very hard to emotionally endure the training and discipline that’s required to actively and effectively serve. You really have to sacrifice a part of your soul and personality for the greater good.”
Layton says it takes time for those things to come back, but last year she made more progress toward that when she became Ms. Alabama Hospitality Senior World 50s. “I’m very much a girlie girl, but I laid all that down for my country. It took years for me to reconnect completely with my feminine side.”
One of her Coast Guard sisters had been in the pageant the year before and thought Layton would enjoy it as well, with the goal of helping her slow down to focus on something other than work.
Layton says her work was particularly challenging during the pandemic. “I was teaching nursing, I was a National VA fellow, and I was doing pandemic surge shifts, working 80 hours a week. I would take students to the bedside and pitch in,” she says. “Everything had been so high stakes for me, and after that, I needed some self-care, something that was refreshing and light with a community purpose and focus.”
Even though she is about as “anti-pageant” as anyone could ever be, she says it’s been a wonderful opportunity to take care of herself and her community.
Layton is currently representing Alabama at the North America Pageant, and she will continue working in the nursing field, advocating for and teaching about quality care for veterans. On top of that Layton was recently elected Commander of American Legion Post 138.
With veteran and pageant duties, Battle Buddies, five children, and two grandchildren, Layton will have many opportunities to continue caring for herself and others.