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Veteran returns to 'Heroes Haven' program to help others battling PTSD

By Jed Boal, KSL TV | Posted - Sep. 19, 2020 at 1:27 p.m.



SALT LAKE CITY — As many as 800,000 American troops have battled post traumatic stress disorder after combat deployments during the last two decades. Some don’t get the help they need because they don’t believe they have a real problem.

A Utah program called Heroes Haven has been helping veterans discover a safe route to healing.

“I was trying different things to help, and none of it was working,” said Zachary Howser, a veteran of the US Army.

He was a 15-year-old in ROTC class in Provo when the attacks of 9/11 shook the United States. He believed he was born to be a soldier, so he ignored early warning signs of PTSD.

“When I got back, I was having dreams and nightmares, and I thought, it’s just because combat was so recent,” the veteran said.

He served as an Army combat engineer for six years, deployed twice to Iraq, and saw a lot of combat.

Howser hunted down roadside bombs and blew them up, and his vehicle took several hits. Once home, that trauma troubled him, but he denied it.

“That’s an imaginary thing,” he said, referring to his previous attitude towards PTSD. “I didn’t even want to think about it because I’m a soldier. We don’t have psychological issues.”

One night, Howser acted out the nightmare he was having.

“I was up walking around, and I had my combat socks on, and I was walking around with my hands like I was holding my M-16,” he said.

His ex-wife called the police.

“I was standing in the middle of the road yelling, ‘Stop, or I’ll shoot,’ in Arabic, holding my hands up like I’m holding an M4,” Howser said.

After the experiences, he wanted to rediscover the man that his father and his two boys expected him to be. He credited them with his desire to get better.

“The most powerful motivator out there,” he said.

Until recently, he continued to struggle. He was in and out of counseling for a decade as he battled addiction and the demons of war.

“I was using massive amounts of alcohol, and dealing with it in my own way,” he said.

Earlier this year, he ended up in Veterans Court and found his way to Valor House on the Salt Lake VA campus in March.

In August, he picked up new tools and fresh optimism at a week-long camp in Park City put on by Heroes Haven. In that safe environment, Howser discovered he wasn’t the only one struggling with PTSD. He learned how to better understand his traumas from war, and put them in perspective for continuing life.

He found healing in the embrace of fellow veterans who also faced the work they had to do to improve their mental health.

“Being able to socialize with other vets who are going through similar situations, and being able to help them process, and talk about it with somebody who understands what I’m going through,” he said.

He began working to cope with PTSD as part of his regular daily routine.

“It’s always going to be there,” he said. “You can’t take that experience away.”

He said he now feels like he has strategies to fight back.

“Just because I have to relive it, sometimes, doesn’t mean it has to affect me,” Howser said.

There’s another Heroes Haven retreat in October, and Howser planned to return as a peer leader. He looked forward to continuing his own healing and building a network of peers he can count on.

“I’m going to help other veterans that are going through similar situations,” he said.

Suicide prevention resources

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, call the suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.

Crisis Hotlines

  • Utah County Crisis Line: 801-691-5433
  • Salt Lake County/UNI Crisis Line: 801-587-3000
  • Wasatch Mental Health Crisis Line: 801-373-7393
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Trevor Project Hotline for LGBTQ teens: 1-866-488-7386

Online resources

Warning signs of suicide

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. Warning signs are associated with suicide but may not be what causes a suicide.

Information from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

What to do if you see warning signs of suicide

  • Do not leave the person alone
  • Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt
  • Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional

Information from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Jed Boal

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