Published Nov. 14, 2010
HUNTINGTON — Got a twisted ankle, pulled hamstring or sore arm? Mark Smaha can help. The farm boy from Iowa was educated for that line of work.
Down on life? Or heaven forbid, you witness a horrific plane crash, can’t get that picture out of your mind, and later to your surprise you learn you suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and need help. Smaha can lend support there, too.
No, Smaha isn’t in the mental health field, so forget the couch and $125 an hour charge. He’s worked as a certified athletic trainer for 32 years on the college level. His counseling skills come from his ability to connect with patients and from personal experience. Smaha, you see, once suffered from one of the worst PTSD cases on record.
In 1970, Smaha worked as a Marshall University assistant athletic trainer for football and basketball. He was in graduate school, had fallen behind on a class assignment and didn’t make the Nov. 13-14, 1970, football trip to East Carolina. Student trainer Donald Tackett went instead. The Thundering Herd lost, 17-14. Then the chartered jet bringing the team, coaches, athletic department staff and fans back crashed short of the runway on Tri-State Airport in Kenova. All 75 on board died.
Needless to say, that life-altering decision, followed by being pressed to hustle from Cabell Huntington Hospital to a makeshift morgue in the National Guard Armory at Tri-State Airport to identify bodies and later serve as a pallbearer at several funerals, took a toll on Smaha, who was 23.
For years, Smaha didn’t speak publicly about the details of his experience and the aftermath. Smaha eventually was treated for PTSD in 1998. It involved extensive therapy. The treatments helped. “There is no cure for PTSD,” Smaha said, adding a patient reaches a “level of closure.”
The experience led Smaha to become a motivational speaker.
Smaha’s story has attracted national attention. His agent, Bruce Machlica, the president of Chatham Communications Corp. in Rochester, N.Y., said he’s in negotiations with movie studios, networks and publishing houses to tell the story. Three offers were turned down. “Prior to all of this I was not in a place where I could share this story without a crash and burn,” Smaha said.
Today, Marshall and Huntington remember for the 40th time the loved ones lost in the crash. The ceremony is at 1 p.m. at the Memorial Student Center. Smaha will pay his respects in his own way at home in Keyport, Wash.
“I have learned through my experiences, helping others, and receiving help myself along with my faith, to cope with the anniversary,” Smaha said. “The daily reminder will always be there. It took 75 people out of my life. The 40th, in the sense of the number, a landmark if you will, means nothing to me. Every day is Nov. 14 and I wonder if it means anything else as the number is highlighted to those who suffered the loss. To me it is what it is. A number.”
While up to date on athletic training methods, Smaha considers himself an apprentice in the counseling world.
“It’s all by chance,” he said. “I know I have helped young people suffering from depression, not necessarily identified as PTSD, with their own tragedies. As a professional, athletic trainers all serve in some capacity as a place where an athlete can go for psychological help in troubled times.
“Nobody is referred to me. For some strange teleological reason, they just migrate to me. I am a human being with unique life experiences via the apprenticeship route that helps me understand and listen with the skills the good Lord has blessed me with to help people transcend through their own tragedy.”
PTSD symptoms fall into three categories -- repeated “living” of the event, avoidance and arousal. Treatment is done in several ways, in both individual and collective settings.
“I don’t necessarily recognize the stages they are in,” Smaha said. “It’s much more complicated and subjective than that. Yes, I do use my story to help others find a sense of understanding the phenomenon of life in a fallen world and how relationships and circumstances mold and sculpture who we are.
“I don’t use my story in every instance. It is a judgment call that comes to me at a time I may think it is necessary. Sometimes with athletes, it’s a matter that simply deserves a response, ‘Come on, it’s a mild ankle sprain, suck it up and get well, quit whining.’ ”
Smaha stresses to people he counsels that the healing process takes time. An Army veteran who’s served in two wars does not get over PTSD in one or two sessions.
“It’s a journey, not a sprint,” he said. “Here’s the hardest thing. The military especially is taught to show no fear. I’ve been taught that since I was a kid. That’s the reason I didn’t cry in Huntington. It’s hard to admit you need help. I’ve suffered a tragedy. Most everybody will suffer tragedy in their life. Some say not to the magnitude of yours, and I say it doesn’t matter.
“This is my tragedy and yours is yours. You have to take ownership of it and give honor to it. The best way to go is immediately get help. I waited 28 years. I paid for it dearly. Most people don’t know how to grieve. You can’t grieve properly by letting down and letting go until you have someone around who can lift you up.”
Smaha did his latest motivational talk two weeks ago at church.
“This is my story,” he said. “It is a part I did not audition for or desire, but it is part of my destiny and who I am to live out and share with others and hopefully help those who have suffered their tragedies
“We need to accept that there cannot be complete closure. But a level of closure through peace.”