Heroes for Hope: Thriving Beyond Trauma

“A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.”
—Joseph Campbell (1949), The Hero with a Thousand Faces 

Does the news leave you uneasy about a financial crash, climate change, the next world war, politics, social media, or pandemic pandemonium? We all get anxious. In fact, California’s First Lady Jennifer Siebel Newsom is using her influence to call anxiety a public health emergency with the greatest sense of urgency. You are not alone. In fact, I am reaching out to that prodigal piece of your personality that’s defeating you. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that over a third of all American adults hope to tame their unbearable anxiety.

Siebel Newsom acknowledges that we’ve inflicted our children with this epidemic of restless despair. As a parent, there is nothing more painful than watching a child struggle. However, I can claim with an endearing smile that after a hero’s journey of forty years, I know first hand that our heroes can also be our hope in a stress-filled world. Resilience is their superpower. And, as Santa Clara County (CA) Supervisor Joe Simitian stated during his effort to expand funding for youth mental health, “We can’t expect kids to be resilient all on their own.” California is not alone. The U.S. Surgeon General declared youth mental health a “crisis.”

Like Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Joe Simitian, and the U.S. Surgeon General, I too serve in a unique position. As a Marine Corps veteran, retired police sergeant, and author, I found a national need for Heroes for Hope to preserve the stories of resilience from those who foot-slogged through the valley of the shadow of death. I wore many hats during my law enforcement career in America’s fifth most diverse city. I was instrumental in developing, then supervising, my department’s mental health outreach program, as well as being a proponent of Officer Mindfulness, a mediation method developed specifically for law enforcement. My inner Marine is a thriving graduate of a Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG) training program known as Warrior PATHH: Progressive and Alternative Training for Helping Heroes.

These are not safe times. America is in such a mental health crisis that the U.S. Preventative Service suggests making anxiety screening a normal part of an annual physical. Battling evildoers may not be what triggers your fight-or-flight response, but veterans and first responder artists can be a bridge over anxiety’s troubled waters. Heroes for Hope: Thriving Beyond Trauma partners with local merchants, bookstores, libraries and educational institutions, veterans’ groups, first responder associations, and faith communities. Our vision is to provide space for much needed self-care, and social connectedness between warrior-healers and those they protect.

According to renowned American writer Joseph Campbell’s popular masterpiece The Hero with a Thousand Face, every hero must chose to leave the safety of their “ordinary world” to embark on the epic adventure. There are twelve steps to a hero’s journey. Consider Luke Skywalker’s saga. Along the way, mentors shepherd Luke amidst enemies, who force him to face his worst fear. And when Luke survived the proverbial “belly of the beast”, the triumphant hero returned to his ordinary world bearing wisdom. My journey transformed me from a bystander to an upstander for the marginalized.

As an upstander I discovered that veterans and first responders don’t corner the market on battling the dark side of life. In fact, Ian Gotlib, lead author of a Stanford University study published in the journal of Biological Psychiatry School of Medicine, found that the lion’s share of our country’s mental health crisis can be traced to childhood adversity such as violence, abuse, neglect, family dysfunction, and accelerated brain aging due to the COVID-19 lock-down.

Dr. Shauna Springer agrees, “It’s no coincidence that individuals who have been bullied as children are often drawn to military service. For many who enlist in the military, the promise of becoming a professional-grade fighter is an alluring defense against hidden feelings of vulnerability.” Dr. Springer would know. She is one of the nation’s leading authorities on the impact of trauma in the law enforcement and veteran communities.

This said, our veterans and first responders could be our good shepherds along life’s treacherous paths. So anyone can seize the opportunity to view life through the lens of their ordeals. For this reason, the mission of Heroes for Hope: Thriving Beyond Trauma is to provide space for our diverse military veteran and first responder communities to share their resilience through a variety of inspired genres. Now, follow along with me to an afternoon with Heroes for Hope. It is a festive fair where a military veteran strums a guitar, a firefighter explains a piece of jewelry, and a cop signs her book—each talking openly about their journeys.

We can find healing in our over-comers’ words, lyrics, and art. However, I was shocked to discover that only six percent of Americans serve as first responders or in the military. To put this small number into perspective, statistically you are as likely to meet one of these steward leaders as you would be to encounter someone who believes they can defeat a grizzly bear in hand-to-hand combat.

In reality, a police officer can live one of Campbell’s epic journeys in a shift. The Tulsa Police Foundation reports that the average person will experience 1.5 to 2 critical incidents in their lifetime. The average police officer, over a twenty-year career, will experience 800 of these violent and horrific encounters. According to The International Journal of Emergency Mental Health, these incidents lead to increase risk of developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), leaving police officers five times more likely to develop stress disorders and depression than civilians.

Is your inner child crying for help? Warrior PATHH taught me to heal the broken inner child. On my journey, trauma has inspired new insights and post-traumatic growth. I was fortunate enough to meet my Yodas who taught me how to rebuild life after brokenness. I have written both music and stories about some of my fire-breathing dragons. One popular survey claims that 81 percent of Americans say they have a book in them. Few put this passion to pen. Fewer take their toil to market. I met Eric at PATHH. He was a NYFD EMT at the World Trade Center on 9/11. He talks openly about how everyday brings the living hell of watching people leaping to their graves, and not being able to help. Eric struggles putting his thoughts on paper. Eric and I share two different tragic stories—his was man-made, whereas mine was surviving a cataclysmic volcanic eruption in the middle of the Philippine jungle. It’s daunting to put words to emotionally remote catastrophes. But survivors owe it to those we protect to convey our stories in our shared humanitarian language. I am humbled to admit that the near misses I survived during my time in the Marines and law enforcement inspired my debut novel TYPHOON COAST. I hope it’s reread so often the bindings bust.

In a word, Heroes for Hope: Thriving Beyond Trauma is an umbrella venue that brings attention to transcultural resources such as veteran homelessness, mental health, and paths to citizenship. A portion of proceeds benefit Zac Brown’s Camp Southern Ground’s Warrior Week and Warrior PATHH. Interested artists, or hosts contact Mark at markclifford@typhooncoast.com.

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