COLORADO SPRINGS — A local veteran spoke candidly with News5 about his mental health journey and how therapy has helped in his own life, saying if it encourages even one person to reach out for help, it's worth it.
Former Army EOD Captain Mason Heibel served for one month shy of nine years. He was medically separated in 2017, after sustaining orthopedic injuries during a tour in Afghanistan. Captain Heibel also endured a number of traumatic brain injuries during his service. "For the most part of my military service, I was always the happy-go-lucky individual, nothing could bring me down. Always had a smile. When we returned from Afghanistan, probably three weeks afterwards, one of my soldiers came up to me and made a comment that stuck, and it was: Sir, what happened to you? You were always the happy one, and now you're the angry one," said Captain Heibel.
Captain Heibel got married in 2018, and said his wife was instrumental in ensuring he received necessary mental health help. With her support, he began going to therapy twice a week. "Really easy to communicate with her because she's a combat medic, she's got a deployment to Iraq. So, she understands everything that I deal with," said Captain Heibel about his wife, who is also a Paralympian.
"If you kind of look at who you are as a human as like a recipe. Emotions are just as important spices as anything else in that recipe, and leaving out the sadness and the tears is leaving out an essential ingredient."
His first therapy session was on Fort Carson. He still remembers a phrase said by his initial therapist, which rings true to this day. "Everything dies in the light. So, I keep that mantra when there's something negative, something eating away at me, or negative thoughts. I just bring it to the light, light of day, light of communication, light of thought, positive thinking, and don't let that fester or take any control or power over me," explained Captain Heibel.
Captain Heibel said he was diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and PTSD. "It's like living with an elephant in the room, 24/7. And no matter how familiar you get with that elephant, it's always there. But you can get more comfortable with it, and you can learn to not let it control you," said Captain Heibel, when discussing what it's like to live with PTSD.
Captain Heibel said there should be no shame in seeking mental health support. "In the veteran community, somebody looks at me and they see a very large, strong male. Not trying to toot my own horn or anything, but I'm aware of what I look like. And so when people see that, it's easy for them to be like, oh well he must be fine. What they don't see is the hours spent crying in a shower, or the hours spent not sleeping and just driving in the mountains because I just can't turn my brain off. And I know if I'm feeling that, other people are feeling that too," Captain Heibel told News5.
Now, one of Captain Heibel's missions is making sure fellow veterans and military members know they are not alone. "I spent years alone in crowds. And I know what that feels like, and it's hard. And you don't have to be alone in a crowd. There's people out there for you... Life is short. And even if this only helps one person, that's one person that got help, and that's totally worth the tears for me," said Captain Heibel.
Captain Heibel also wanted to mention the Marcus Institute for Brain Health in Aurora, which has specialty care for veterans and athletes with traumatic brain injuries. He said that's where he first experienced the benefits of art therapy, which gave him a way to communicate things that are difficult to say.