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Amy Donaldson: Once desperate for relief from PTSD, Utah veteran is now on a mission to create a haven for heroes

Deseret News - 10/23/2017

SALT LAKE CITY — The image of a suicide bomber haunted Sgt. Frank Devito long after he’d left the Army National Guard.

Six years of serving his country in administration and intelligence collection was the fulfillment of a life-long dream. But those years also left him with wounds that were invisible to most people.

The 38-year-old California native said finding relief from post traumatic stress disorder was so difficult that he did something he now regrets.

“I was trying to get into a program, but you basically had to have a drug and alcohol problem,” he said. “So I said, ‘Yeah, I drink. I have a problem.’ Doing that wasn’t the right thing to do, but I was desperate to get some help.”

Help for those suffering with PTSD, especially as it relates to military service, can be elusive for many reasons: from the stigma that accompanies any mental health issue to the misunderstandings that can happen between civilians and veterans to the differing philosophies on how — or if — it can be managed or cured.

The problem he found with being in a program with its primary purpose of drug and alcohol treatment was that group sessions weren’t very accommodating to the stories he needed to tell.

“They’d ask me to leave because all I wanted to talk about was this violent stuff,” he said. He started a YouTube page (Das Hooah) where he talked with other veterans about their service, an act that is both educational and therapeutic.

He found it helpful to exchange stories and insight with people who understood at a visceral level how the image of a suicide bomber, the idea of that kind of act, could keep a man stuck in a moment in time.

“It’s something we all go through,” he said of the trauma that impacts many in the military. “PTSD is a natural reaction to an unnatural experience.”

Devito eventually got help through a program that a friend found for him. Run by volunteers, it wasn’t sustainable, but Devito felt that it needed to be.

So he set about trying to figure out how he could raise money to create what he calls Heroes Haven, a place where the techniques that helped him could be offered to veterans and active duty military personnel.

“I decided Das Hooah was going to raise funds to build a program like this here (in Utah),” he said.

He took a first step toward funding that dream with the Veterans Guidon 5K this past weekend.

I signed up to run his race because Team Red, White and Blue wanted to have a team running under our flag (our guidon) in support of this effort.

It was a small race, which is understandable for a first-year event. I’ve been to a lot of new races in my 14 years as a committed runner (also known as a weekend warrior), and they vary in size and experience, but usually they’re hoping to raise awareness or money for very worthy causes.

For many years, it was these 5K races that kept me motivated when it came to fitness. Eventually, my interest turned to longer races on more rugged terrain. But I still run these community 5Ks now and then, mostly because the causes resonate with me.

I was surprised, even though this was a first-year race, that there weren’t more people standing at that starting line above the State Capitol because supporting veterans seems to be top of so many minds right now.

Devito wasn’t discouraged or deterred by the small turnout, and in fact pointed out that the race is still open for virtual runners, who will get the same swag and support the same cause with their entry fee as if they'd run Saturday.

He has solidified many parts of Heroes Haven, and plans to have retreats at places like Camp Williams until he can find a permanent home for the program. He hopes it will connect veterans struggling with PTSD to other helpful programs, like the free counseling offered at the University of Utah.

Besides a great run with my friends, I signed up for the Guidon 5K because I know people living with PTSD — former soldiers and civilians. I find it difficult to understand, let alone, figure out ways to help them when the situations start to adversely impact their lives.

In the most recent episode of our podcast (Voices of Reason on KSL.com) we discussed this issue with three veterans, one of whom is University of Utah assistant professor Craig Bryan.

“Our understanding of PTSD has evolved over the past 30 or 40 years,” Bryan said. “The way I like to think about PTSD, you can think of this as a problem of getting stuck. When we experience a highly stressful situation, whether it’s life threatening, it’s horrifying, violates our sense of right versus wrong, we try to make sense out of that event. The event can sometimes conflict or contradict some of the things we hold true … as a result we kind of get stuck.”

So we gathered Saturday morning under a cloudy, gray sky as the organizers explained how a guidon was both a beacon soldiers could follow and a mantle of leadership for the one who carried it.

We ran and talked and laughed, and a few of us even got lost. We stuck together and we pushed our own personal limits. The finish line was more of a social than a competition.

As I ran on my own Sunday, I thought about all of the reasons we take up a cause or fight for an issue. We look to one and other, and we rely on each other to navigate the terrible and the beautiful.

And if those who make sacrifices that some of us can’t comprehend, then maybe we ought to be willing to keep them company on the other side. That might mean something small, like taking a friend for lunch and just listening. It might be something big, like donating to causes that help them build a new life.

Because as anyone who has experienced trauma understands, there is no recovering the life they once had. When these situations that challenge our humanity smash into us, we have to realize that who we were was likely destroyed in that collision.

The reality is that everyone is changed by the experiences of life. Some of us suffer much more trauma than others, and some of us do so on behalf of everyone else.

It is both the right thing and the loving thing to offer some measure of comfort and support as we move into that new life, that new world together.

CREDIT: Amy Donaldson


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