On June 15, 1991, the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines marked history’s most catastrophic volcanic eruption in a densely populated area. The eruption spewed ash, gas, and rock high into the atmosphere, relentless earthquakes, triggering lahars (mudflows) and pyroclastic flows, which devastated the island of Luzon. The eruption caused the loss of many lives.
I was living near a village in the jungle when the volcano ash cloud descended upon me as well the nineteen Marines whose lives were entrusted to me (I was only 25-year-old). I later based my first novel, Typhoon Coast, on this catastrophic event. Two years earlier, I’d survived the massive 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake in San Francisco. How does one prepare for the unthinkable? I quickly realized that our only chance of survival was to seek shelter back on base and wait out ensuing chaos. The fate of the villagers we’d left behind haunted me.
To make matters worse, a typhoon hit Luzon, turning the ash to cement. We huddled inside our tiny Quanset hut as the ash pummeled the canopy outside. The ravage was deafening. The days of darkness were suffocating, and I was acutely aware of the weight of the ash above us. More ash could bury us alive.
At that moment, the thought struck me that this might be the end. I had always imagined that my life would end in a more peaceful or meaningful way. But here I was, trapped, with no possibility of escape.
As I waited for what seemed like days, I reflected on my life. I thought about all the things I planned to accomplish: family, life beyond the Corps, and all the things I had yet to do. I thought about the people back home, the people I had lost, my fiancé. I wondered if they would remember me? Will my remains be excavated like a soldier in Pompeii?
I also thought about the things I had taken for granted. The simple pleasures of life, like a warm cup of coffee or the sound of the ocean waves crashing against the shore. At that moment, I realized that life was truly precious, and that I worried too much.
As the earth calmed, we dug ourselves out the hut—burning our hands on the hot ash. We were grateful to be alive. I looked around at the apocalyptic devastation, and I realized that life can change in an instant. The things that we take for granted can be taken away from us in the blink of an eye. Surprisingly, my Pinatubo story did not end at our burrow. My Marines were tasked with missions that no amount of training could prepare one for in such a surreal new world.
Since that day, I have made a conscious effort to appreciate every moment of my life. I take the time to savor the small things and to cherish the people I love. I try not to let the little things get to me, and I remind myself that life is too short to waste on negativity.
The experience of being buried beneath the ash during the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo was truly life changing. It forced me to confront my mortality and to appreciate the beauty and fragility of life. It reminded me that every moment is a gift and that we should live each day to the fullest.
I later went on to serve twenty-seven years in law enforcement. Almost forty years of relentless trauma had taken its toll on every aspect of my life. Fortunately, the universe delivered unto me Post-Traumatic Growth. The post-traumatic growth practices I learned at Warrior PATHH gets most of the credit. Warrior PATHH (Progressive, Alternative Training for Helping Heroes) is a special program that helps veterans and first responders deal with the effects of our service in war and on the streets. We meditated our PTSD, depression, anxiety, and combat stress into remission twice a day—I poured my heart into a piece I posted last year about the lifelong friends I made at PATHH. You can read about that here.
Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG) is a method of managing stress that focuses on personal growth after experiencing a traumatic event. Unlike other treatments that aim solely at managing the symptoms of stress, Post-Traumatic Growth helps survivors find new meaning and purpose in their lives after terrifying ordeals. This method has been not only effective in reducing symptoms of stress but also improving overall quality of life.
The American Psychological Association confirms that practitioners of PTG report higher levels of life satisfaction, increased resilience, and a greater sense of purpose and meaning in their lives. This is because PTG encourages individuals to re-frame the traumatic experience as an opportunity to bounce forward and develop, rather than seeing it as a setback.
Post-Traumatic Growth leads to increased social support and stronger relationships. As individuals who have experienced trauma often feel isolated and disconnected from others, PTG can help build connections and foster a close sense of community, like the bonds I formed at PATHH.
Overall, Post-Traumatic Growth is a powerful and effective method of managing the anxiety and panic that stress inflicts. Our Nation is in such a mental health crisis that the U.S. Preventative Service suggests making anxiety screening a normal part of an annual physical. America should consider PTG as a preferred method of stress management for individuals who have experienced trauma. Talk to your mental health professional if you’d like to explore implementing PTG practices into your mental health journey. Also, take a deep dive with me into stories and healthy practices of survivors of unthinkable traumas. Listen to my podcast “Heroes For Hope: Thriving Beyond Trauma.” Each story has a wisdom that can change the cultural landscape by helping listeners make sense of their own struggles.
Episodes can be found here