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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
- Follow the Utah for Veterans Facebook page for updates on the trip
- Give donations here
- Find more information at the Utah for Veterans website
- 2,000 miles for vets, 71-year-old sets sights on scooter ride to Florida
- One hero at a time, benefit for wounded Afghanistan veteran
- Washington County Veterans Court, now in session
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