JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – U.S. Marine Corps Veteran Travis Howze is sober and smiling. It's something he celebrates every single day. But it took him years to figure out that he had post-traumatic stress, which triggered his drinking and out-of-control behavior.
It's something he knows so many others struggle with as well and he's hoping the lessons he learned from his experience can reassure others that happiness and sobriety is in reach.
It was one of the worst firefighter tragedies since 9-11 that led to Travis' spiral downward. A furniture store in Charleston, South Carolina caught fire the evening of June 18, 2007 and an employee was trapped inside. Firefighters rushed in, but there was a collapse.
"They had just done three air horn blasts when they want everyone to evacuate the building and shortly after the building came down," recalled Travis.
Nine firemen were now trapped themselves. Travis volunteered to be part of the team to go in and get them.
"I honestly felt like I would find one of them and be able to bring them out but that was a whole different story once we got inside," Travis explained. "Digging through the steel and the ashes and we located nine of them."
There were no survivors. The nightmare for Travis and many others would now begin. Greeted by a silent line of rescue personnel standing at attention, Travis helped carry each of the nine fallen firefighters out of that destroyed furniture store. It destroyed him.
"It was tough, when you walk out of the building we saw there were guys off duty, guys on duty, guys from various departments both sides, lined up saluting, you know as we carried them out one by one, we loaded them up right over there," recalled Travis. "I can see those images still, you know."
Filled with regret and survivor's guilt, Travis picked booze as his medicine. Before that night, Travis had stared dangers and tragedy in the face. After all, he's a U.S. Marine Corps Veteran and a former police officer. But neither uniform he'd worn before prepared him for the night he'd spend digging through twisted steel and choking on smoke to find his fallen friends, now known as the Charleston 9.
"I see all of them, in the condition they were in that night, and they all flash, one by one by one," Travis said as tears filled his eyes while looking at the memorial in Charleston that honors his fallen brothers. "It does make me proud to know that I volunteered to go in and bring them out although that one decision in my life haunts me more than anything."
Each firefighter is honored at that memorial in the exact spot where he lost his life. Nine personal markers mark each spot.
"It's hard for me to even look over there," Travis admitted. "I look at them and I know exactly which ones are which."
It had been quite some time since Travis' last visit to this sacred ground.
"I don't like coming here, but I need to," he explained. "It's a constant reminder for me because of what I do today to keep pressing forward and this is why I do what I do."
Every single day, 22 veterans take their own lives. But it doesn't just affect men and women in the military. Right now, 31.3 million people have had or are currently struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress. PTSD is the silent killer that nearly led Travis Howze to take his own life.
"[The] hardest thing I've ever done in my life hands down is address Post-Traumatic Stress and have to fight this fight," said Travis.
Travis saw things the night of June 18, 2007, that he cannot forget.
"It does make me proud to know that I volunteered to go in and bring them out although that one decision in my life haunts me more than anything."
The images of smoldering debris on top of nine friends who rushed into a burning building to save a life stayed with him around the clock.
"So you have to find ways to cope with it and deal with it. Mine was for the longest time through alcohol," he said.
Along with the horrific images flashing through his mind, Travis was dealing with another decision he made the day of the fire: a phone call he declined to answer.
"My cell phone started ringing and it was my buddy Louis Mulkey. He was the Captain of Engine 15, who fell back there," Travis said as he pointed to the Captain's memorial marker. "I hit decline, I sent it to voicemail, and it's one of the things I live with every day. I wish I had talked to him. "
Travis tried to drink away the images and use alcohol to numb the pain of having lived, when his friends did not - but it didn't work. Looking back, he says the signs where there he was losing control.
"Anybody that was close to me, I started pushing everybody away," he said.
Travis had PTSD, but he had no idea.
"I became a very negative person. I started finding faults with everybody around me. I was very standoffish. Any little thing would set me," explained Travis.
And one day that hair-triggered temper, cost Travis his job as a firefighter when he fought with a coworker at his firehouse. Now he was really alone.
"When I was alone, that's when all you had was time to reflect on that night and the images that is would see when I would wake up with nightmares in the middle of the night," he explained. "It became so much you just wanted out, you just didn't want to feel this way anymore. So that's where all the suicidal thoughts come in."
Travis hit rock bottom. But he made the decision that he was not going to let whatever was happening to him take his own life. He reached out and asked for help.
"Through therapy, I started educating myself a little more on my behavioral issues with Post Traumatic Stress," he said. "Looking back on it now, I know everything that I was doing was because I was dealing with what I was going through."
- Take the PTSD self-assessment test from the PTSD Foundation of America.
- How to get help for PTSD (Military or Civilian)
Coping through comedy
Travis Howze gave up drinking, and along with therapy, found his best medicine was stand up comedy.
"Comedy is my alcohol," Travis said with a smile. "I abuse comedy."
The days of being a class clown was now his key to survival. But not just his own. Travis says he offers others, who just need to leave a bad day or a bad feeling at the door, the opportunity to do so.
"Seeing the joy I am able to bring to people and after the shows and when they come up and they say, 'Thank you, you really helped me I'm going through some troubles,' or whatever they're going through, it's uplifting for me," Travis explained. "I found that laughter, honestly, is the best medicine - as cliché as it sounds. It, along with a few other things really pulled me from the darkest place I've ever been. And if I can help shed some light on people's dark days, then that's all I can ask for."
Through the power of laughter and interviews like this one, Travis hopes to help not only veterans who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress, but anyone dealing silently with this potentially deadly disorder.
"You can find a therapist that will talk to you and it can be confidential," he said. "I owe my therapist my life, I really do. I want to educate other people through my experiences so maybe if I can save just one person just through my story, if I can touch one person to where they can turn their life around, and make a positive impact on themselves and someone else, then it's worth me telling my story."
And every time he steps on stage, he always has his fallen brothers with him. On his arm, is a tattoo of an American flag with nine stars. He rubs it before every show.
"It represents these nine
heroes who lay out here," said Travis as he looked back at the memorials for the Charleston 9.
Travis' hope is to give back to every man and woman who has put on a uniform but personally paid an internal price. He participates in many fundraising efforts including the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, the Rosecrance Florian Program - which assists emergency services personnel dealing with alcohol abuse and PTSD, and in August, Travis will travel overseas to entertain our troops, something he remembers from his days as a U.S. Marine.
"It makes me feel like I can still help people," said Travis.
Travis calls Jacksonville his "home city" for comedy
With Jacksonville's deep military roots, Travis Howze is proud to keep coming back here, referring to Jacksonville as his "home city" for comedy. Steve Smith, owner of the Comedy Club of Jacksonville, says Travis brings something unique to the River City.
"He has a perspective of the military life, the police life, the fireman life that he puts on stage and makes fun of and it's a side of life most people don't see," said Smith. "So that's why I think it gravitates towards his popularity here because the military, they see themselves in him and they get a chance to laugh at it."
"He calls us home," added Smith. "Travis has seen some of life's worst tragedies and I think his pendulum has swung the other way where he just really feels like he knows and understands the importance of laughing, and he loves to make people laugh. So that's what we like about Travis so much."
But no joke, every stage he steps on and every audience he causes to explode with laughter, it's to honor the Charleston 9.
"I am so proud to have known each one of these guys and to have served with them," said Travis.
What's next for Travis Howze?
Travis' hope is to give back as much as possible to every man and woman who wears a uniform, and he'll do that when he goes to Japan and South Korea in August to entertain the troops.
"For everything he has been through, you would think he would be a bitter person but he is the complete opposite," explained Comedian Jorge Ruiz of Phoenix, Arizona. "He [Travis] has helped me in comedy with gigs and just in general life situations. No matter where he is or what he is doing, he is always willing to lend a helping hand."
And now that Travis has recently signed with The Kinkead Entertainment Agency, he hopes to figure out new ways to give back to men and women in uniform.
"What he [Travis] has endured over the course of his life -- the intense pain and
heartache, the isolation of PTSD, the loss of loved ones -- and his ability to emerge from all that darkness with the resolve to succeed, to provide for his beautiful family, and to make people laugh -- all while paying homage to his fallen brothers -- are indicative of a most remarkable man. It is a privilege to be his agent," said Harlan Harper with The Kinkhead Entertainment Agency in New York City.
No matter what happens next, Travis says he will continue to "pay it forward"and talk about his experience. He wants people to know there is no shame in getting help for Post-Traumatic Stress. You can share his story and spread his message that PTSD is not something we can ignore. And just by sharing, countless numbers of lives could be saved.