One woman’s journey, Zion community, bring comfort to war-zone survivors

ZION NATIONAL PARK — In early 2013, Utah native Mary Southerland had a breakdown and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression disorder while serving in Iraq. She returned to Utah burdened with a steady stream of bad news: friends she made while in Iraq were committing suicide one after another. Seven close friends of of hers, one being her ex-boyfriend, had killed themselves in less than a year.

L-R: Chris Anderson, an Army vet from Afghanistan, Mary Southerland of Utah for Veterans, and their friend Sam during Southerland journey along the Ohio River, Sept., 2013 | Photo courtesy of Mary Southerland, St. George News
L-R: Chris Anderson, an Army vet from Afghanistan, Mary Southerland of Utah for Veterans, and their friend Sam during Southerland’s journey down the Ohio River, Sept., 2013 | Photo courtesy of Mary Southerland, St. George News

Back home, she was feeling dejected and crippled with a condition that makes you feel separate from humanity, Southerland said. Beside herself, she had to get away.

A healing journey gives birth to an outreach

In the summer of 2013, without much of a plan, Southerland drove to Pittsburgh with a retired couple as her support team, obtained a glorified kayak – donated mostly by Hobie – and spent the next 56 days solo-rafting 986 miles down the Ohio river, equipped with camping supplies, and joined by her labradoodle Henry.

“That was the start of trying to figure out what happened to my head,” Southerland said.

Her incredible journey gave her a renewed faith in humanity and inspired her with a simple philanthropic idea that she hoped would benefit struggling war survivors and bring them closer to Utah communities; first stop: Zion National Park.

Mary Southerland of Utah for Veterans during her journey down the Ohio River, Sept., 2013 | Photo Courtesy of Mary Southerland
Mary Southerland’s raft during her journey down the Ohio River, September 2013 | Photo Courtesy of Mary Southerland, St. George News

Zion National Park had been one of Southerland’s lifelong sanctuaries and it became an integral part of her plan to bring hope to suffering war zone survivors.

While on her rafting journey, Southerland met lots of 20-30 year-olds who’d returned from Iraq or Afghanistan and were now working within the Ohio River barge and tow-boat industry.

She quickly learned that many of these warriors, aside from their time in the Middle East, had never had the means to leave the Ohio River Valley – a common yet unfortunate theme with many vets, she said.

Mary Southerland of Utah for Veterans during her journey down the Ohio River, Sept., 2013 | Photo Courtesy of Mary Southerland
Mary Southerland of Utah for Veterans during her journey down the Ohio River, September 2013 | Photo Courtesy of Mary Southerland

Growing up in Utah, Southerland had traveled quite often around the west and gained deep and meaningful relationships with National Parks and wilderness areas. Zion was one of her favorite places in the world, she said, a place she’d spent loads of time hiking, camping and climbing.

On her journey through the Ohio River Valley, she often yearned for Zion and her other favorite wilderness sanctuaries in Utah.

“Out there they don’t have the mountains and the big wide open spaces that we do out here,” Southerland said, “and I didn’t realize how much I needed it until I came back.”

Will Lewis, pictured with his friend, is one of the Veterans coming to Zion National Park on a Utah for Veterans trip, location and date unknown | Photo courtesy of Mary Southerland, St. George News
Will Lewis, pictured with his friend, is one of the Veterans coming to Zion National Park on a Utah for Veterans trip, location and date unknown | Photo courtesy of Mary Southerland, St. George News

While in the Middle East and the eastern side of America, she was shocked, she said, to find out that very few of the veterans she met had seen the national parks.

“They’d seen war zones but they haven’t seen the national parks that they’ve fought for.”

These former war heros were the key to Southerland’s idea. Most of them were struggling with life back in the U.S. and could greatly benefit from a connection with their country’s parks.

Her idea was simple, to bring returned Iraq veterans, contractors and civilians, to see what she considered America’s ultimate offerings – its wilderness sanctuaries, and specifically those in Southerland’s home state of Utah.

Her offer to the survivors was simple:

“You’ve been to Iraq,” she said, “now, let me show you a different kind of desert, because my desert is Moab, my desert is no longer a stream of convoys.”

Support from the Zion National Park community

The local community to which Zion National Park is central swiftly jumped on board with Southerland and rallied around her idea. She walked around Main Street in Springdale and asked companies if they wanted to help. In no time at all, restaurant owners, lodge managers and adventure company guides were donating services to her cause. Similar proprietors in northern Utah joined in the cause as well.

Adrienne Davis, Veteran from Iraq and Afghanistan will be coming to Zion National Park on a Utah for Veterans trip, photo location and date unknown | Photo courtesy of Mary Southerland, St. George News
Adrienne Davis, Veteran from Iraq and Afghanistan will be coming to Zion National Park on a Utah for Veterans trip, photo location and date unknown | Photo courtesy of Mary Southerland, St. George News

On her latest trip to Zion after receiving supportive response from the Zion community, Southerland started organizing her nonprofit association – a work yet in progress – which she has named: Utah for Veterans – and has proceeded to coordinate the first trip.

Three Iraq war veterans will come to Cottonwood Canyon in northern Utah and Zion National Park in the south this week to camp, raft, mountain bike, hike, canyoneer and, of course, relax in nature. They will fly into Salt Lake City Wednesday, stay in rooms donated by the Solitude Mountain Resort, adventure with a Salt Lake City tour company called Splore, and then head to Zion National Park for four days thanks to donations from the Zion community.

“There wasn’t one place I walked into in Zion that they didn’t say, ‘sure, we can help’” Southerland said. “There was no question. There was no debate.”

To name a few of the many donors: Zion Adventure Company, Zion Outfitter, and Zion Cycles have given free gear and guided canyoneering trips, hikes in Zion’s famous Narrows, and mountain biking trips. Oscar’s Cafe and the Bit and Spur have donated several meals, and the Zion Ponderosa Ranch has donated a cabin.

Mary Southerland's service dog joined her along her voyage down the Ohio River, September 2013 | Photo courtesy of Mary Southerland, St. George News
Mary Southerland’s service dog, Henry, joined her during her voyage down the Ohio River, September 2013 | Photo courtesy of Mary Southerland, St. George News

Regarding the donors, Southerland said, “they were awesome. In fact, they were determined to see if they could do more.”

Even the mayor of Springdale caught word and called Southerland to thank her, she said, and speak with her about family members who had been deployed, and the trials the families have gone through because of war.

Southerland still welcomes donations, and says that even $5 will help to pay for breakfast or extra traveling expenses and services that may be offered will help her coordinate future trips for other survivors.

“Every little bit really does help.”

Even just meeting the vets, recognizing them and sending them hope is welcome, Southerland said.

“No matter what kind of wounded person you are – everybody deserves that.”

Resources

  • Follow the Utah for Veterans Facebook page for updates on the trip
  • Give donations here
  • Find more information at the Utah for Veterans website

Related posts

Email: dallred@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2014, all rights reserved.

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1 Comment

  • Laurie July 19, 2014 at 10:54 am

    A co-founder and former executive director of a genuine 501(c)3 charitable organization, albeit one standing for victims of a far different kind of war, domestic violence, and the frequent result for its victims’, post-traumatic syndrome, or “PTSD,” I must admit that I am appalled at Ms. Southerland’s selfish scheme. The scheme? One created by far too many charletons marauding as those who care deeply for the crippled, ill, or one of the most insulting – Any group pretending to understand the plight of our honored US soldiers, returned home from active battle duty; creating a non-profit, maybe even getting as far as receiving the 501(c)3 tax exemption from the Internal Revenue Service (making all donations’ tax deductible), and then setting about to use the vast majority of those funds for so-called “administrative costs,” whereby the real victims see a mere $0.10 to maybe a whopping $0.30 of each dollar donated to the ’cause’. Thus, as I read this article, that familiar old feeling began to sicken me, as should it all informed citizens. Ms. Southerland states that she is ‘trying to raise the funds to incorporate her “Utah for Veterans” charitable foundation’? Hmm . . . I believe a call to the Utah Secretary of State, would reveal the filing fee to be around $50 – $250; filing the ‘paperwork’ can be completed by anyone with even the most basic knowledge of business law, or an Internet connection and determination (I’d call that part “free”). Next, Ms. Southerland seems to want us to believe that all peoples’ who “served” in Iraq during time of war, are truly war heroes, yet she fails to make the vital distinction between caring for our men and women who fought in the War on Iraq as members of the US Armed Forces, under the US Department of Defense (DOD), giving their all 24/7 in those foreign deserts of Irag and Afghanastan, as well as those before them in the jungles of Vietnam, not to ever forget our heroes who fought the world over during the Korean War, WWII, WWI and all others in Bosnia and Africa, etc., earning maybe (today’s equivalent of) $1,300 a month, and without a single moment’s break, nor a safe place to rest their weary heads’ for a few moments’ peace, and those people who sign-up to earn as much as hundred’s of thousands’ of tax-free dollars’ as private contractors’ for companies with whom work(ed) under the US Department of State (DOS), most times resting their heads on a soft pillow inside the protected, private walls of a compound. Quite a stunning difference. As a US citizen who has witnessed thousands’ of our men and women too often freely giving their very lives, their once-whole bodies and their peace of mind, many times through that terrible PTSD. It is my fervent hope that Ms. Southerland, once a DOS contractor in Iraq, will move forward in a mission first of truth, by clearly defining who is a true veteran of war for this USA and who is, or was, a private contractor, working in a foreign country during time of war – Two far different groups. May Ms. Southerland succeed in her mission, yes, absolutely! But, may she ensure that with each step toward her Utah for Veterans organizational growth, that honesty and integrity remain at the epicenter of all she speaks of; in all her actions and adventures and how she spends each dollar donated to her cause. May God bless each of our men and women in uniform, and may Ms. Southerland see to it that thousands’ of our true veterans’ do get the chance to see any of our stunning US National Parks, for which they defended with their very lives.

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