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THE STORY OF Zach

31 October 2019 Written by  By Mike Crosby, LT. COL,. USAF (RET) Pathway Home Board Member
Published in November 2019 Articles

Moving Beyond Dark Emotional and Spiritual Legacies from Iraqi Battlefields

On March 9, 2018 Zachery Stiles’ world turned upside down.

Zach had become a victim of a debilitating case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), resulting from his experiences on Iraqi battlefields. Now he was in a long-term rehabilitation and recovery program, working with a team of Veteran Administration specialists that included a psychologist, medical doctor, and social worker.

Zach’s progress had also been facilitated by the people and programs at Pathway Home, which was a nonprofit offering resources for recovering veterans. Staff members had remained at Zach’s side during the most difficult times of his recovery. His connection with them ran deeper than friendship and closer than family. Zach himself had progressed so well, that he had become a peer counselor and adviser in the program.

On that fateful day, Zach was on his way from his Berkeley residence to an appointment at the San Francisco VA when he got a call from a friend who told him about a shooting at the Pathway Home site. As soon as he got the word, Zach called Christine Loeber, the Pathway Home executive director, to learn details about the incident and especially to reassure himself that Christine was alright. He wasn’t surprised when she didn’t answer and left a message on her phone mail. “Sounds like you hit a bump in the road,” he said. “Call me if you need help moving forward.”

Zach didn’t make the offer of help in a casual manner. There was nothing that he wouldn’t gladly have done for this person who had done so much for him. I’m sure that, without hesitation, Zach would have given his life to protect Christine from harm.

When Zach finished his appointment and returned home, he learned that the incident was still in progress and that three hostages were being held at gunpoint. He imagined that people on the scene would want to interview a person as closely involved in the program as he was. However, before he left the parking lot, friends informed him that bodies had been found. Zach waited anxiously for more information, hoping and praying that Christine and the others, would be safe. However, he then learned the horrible news that Christine had been one of the hostages and that all three had been killed. He later learned that the gunman was himself a veteran and a former client in the program.

The ghastly incident plunged Zach into a deep valley of inconsolable grief. He walked through a rainstorm from his residence to the top of aptly-named Panoramic Hill that offered broad views of the entire Bay Area. He sat on a bench in the rain and began to reassemble the broken pieces of his heart. He was wracked with grief over the deaths. He couldn’t imagine how anything could be done to maintain the wonderful services that Pathway Home offered to hundreds of wounded veterans. He knew how difficult it would be for the bereaved veterans to cope with the incomprehensible tragedy without the assistance of the people who had been killed and the program that had been destroyed. Zach was unable to imagine how he would be able to help other veterans find ways to cope with what had just happened, since he could hardly imagine how he would be able to work through it himself.

Nevertheless, Zach had learned persistence through the difficult course of his life. He realized that nothing would be gained by giving up; he would do what needed to be done. He had also learned patience and knew that when the military is involved in an incident, the true story would sometimes never be made public. However, Zach had contacts on the inside — people who worked at the Pathway Home and medical people with the VA, so he decided to wait for details of the incident to become clear before trying to help put the pieces back together both for the program and for the shocked veterans he would be counseling with. Doing so would be a way for him to pull back from the disaster himself because he knew the wisdom that eventually comes to all reflective people — helping others heal from a difficult situation is the most effective way to promote healing for ourselves.

I was a Pathway Home board member and had met Zach one day at a Pathway Home Meet and Greet. I looked into his eyes and saw courage. I realized that Zach was a person who had successfully coped with tragedy and loss. I knew some details of his story and realized that Zach’s attitude and behavior reflected Rotary’s “Service Above Self” tagline. I’m a veteran myself, so Zach and I connected with each other, and I learned more details about his story.

ZACH’S DARK VALLEY

Zach had become a VA patient in 2010, seeking treatment for an advanced case of PTSD that had developed as a result of his experience with the Marine Corps on battlefields in Iraq. “I witnessed a lot of combat,” Zach said. The situation was made particularly intense by the fact that 20 members of his platoon were struggling to perform tasks that had been designed for twice that number. Zach was a convoy driver and had often been under bombardment from SCUD attacks and the constant threat of roadside IEDs that would destroy vehicles and kill soldiers without warning. Zach lost four friends to death as well as more wounded than he could count.

Zach was shipped back to the United States and assigned to Camp Pendleton. He turned down a platoon sergeant position and worked as an NCO for his own section, where he was training guys for deployment to the operation to retake the important city of Fallujah.

“Most of us were having problems,” Zach said. “All of us were having nightmares. One of the staff sergeants slit his throat, another was stabbed to death by his wife. Some of our staff sergeants and NCOs moved in with us because they had been kicked out of their own stations.” Zach said that their shared anguish drew members of the group together into a fellowship of suffering.

Zach was honorably discharged December 2004 and took his PTSD symptoms with him into peacetime. He experienced a growing number of disassociating incidents during which he forgot where he was and how he got there. He had nightmares almost continually and his sleep was interrupted by flashbacks to incidents he had observed during combat that were too horrible to process and let go of.

Zach spent five long years moving through a number of jobs ranging from EMT to common laborer. He was a table server, dishwasher, landscaper, and a day hire doing basic carpentry and demolition. Zach admitted that he wasn’t able to hang onto any job for very long because his inner storms prevented him from being a good employee. “People didn’t understand what was going on with me,” Zach said. Which wasn’t surprising, because Zach didn’t really understand what was going on with himself.

In the absence of any counseling or help, Zach’s life continued on its downhill course. He began to steal groceries, fell behind in his rent, and ended up in a bed at his friend’s home. Zach admitted that he was a difficult guest. When his friend moved out of the area, his parents who owned the property moved Zach into the street.

For a while Zach spent his days walking through various parks and public places and spent the nights sleeping behind San Francisco dumpsters, which wasn’t very safe because druggies and thieves would rob homeless people. Zach said that he was attacked at night on three occasions, but a Marine, even with his diminished capacities, is more than capable at resisting the attack of a drugged civilian.

GETTING BACK ON HIS FEET AND MOVING FORWARD

Zach’s life finally moved in an upward direction when a caseworker from the Palo Alto VA put him in contact with Pathway Home. “They rescued me,” Zach said in a simple summary. Pathway Home enrolled Zach in a four month recovery program. He finally admitted a truth that he had denied for five years. He accepted the fact that he was suffering from PTSD. The admission itself brought no relief because Zach couldn’t imagine that anything could be done about his condition.

But when Life Tumbles in, What Then? 

(ARTHUR JOHN GOSSIP)

The Pathway Home program brought structure to Zach’s life with morning groups, check-in groups, and a trauma group in the afternoon. One of the best things about the program was connecting Zach with other veterans through these group experiences. “I had never had much of a military identity on the streets,” Zach said. “But I began meeting with guys whom I respected, and who had respect for me. I began to identify myself as a veteran, to take some pride in my experiences, and learned how they could be turned into assets. Group therapy gave a positive boost to Zach’s recovery. “I discovered how much I could get out of their shared stories,” he said.

After four months, Zach was able to return to the San Francisco VA and continue trauma treatments. He got a job on a construction crew, and signed up for classes at City College with the goal of eventually obtaining a position with the VA, which would permit him to pay forward the life-transforming help that he had received. Zach finished his bachelor’s studies at JFK University’s Pleasanton campus, earning a BA in Humanistic and Transpersonal Psychology. He took extra classes and became a peer counselor at Pathway Home. He secured support from the James S. Brady Foundation, permitting him to sponsor a Pathway Home Equine Therapy Group.

Rotary Clubs continued to support the program on a personal level, with outings that included bowling, fishing, and (of course) meals. Zach drove a van with veterans who share a fear response to dogs. They visited Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF) where they participated in Animal Assisted Therapy encounters. The veterans directly experienced the power of behaviorism and conditioning as the dogs broke down the veterans’ resistance. They discovered that it is impossible for them to maintain defenses and keep psychological boundaries in place while their face is being licked by a Golden Retriever puppy.

Zach met the mother of a deceased Marine Corp friend. She was a shaman who taught Zach meditation techniques. He augmented her teachings with online exercises and practices and sponsored his own sunset meditation group at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. “Sometimes I would be the only one there,” Zach said. “Other times there might be four of us. People strolling down the beach would sometimes join the group.”

Zach is currently completing his PhD at Wright Institute, which is a Psychology Graduate School located in Berkeley. Dr. Nevitt Sanford founded the school in 1968 to focus on therapeutic practices and interventions in clinical psychology. The school has the tagline “Educating Clinicians to Society.” Zach is moving forward with his goal of becoming a professional counselor.

Zachery Stiles could be poster boy for the principle that, through grit and determination, anyone can move forward past the most terrible circumstances. If someone like Zach can make something wholesome and beautiful out of the tattered fragments of his life and turn his upside-down world back up right, none of us have any excuse for not living life at its best and highest. 

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