A New Self
They’ve experienced terror and tragedy, but they didn’t break. Six survivors share how they cope, rebuild, and find new purpose in the aftermath of trauma
Reflecting on the October 1 shooting, Shane “Thom” Mazzier mused that all of Las Vegas had probably suffered collective trauma from it. Mazzier was at the concert the night of the shooting; he’s a survivor himself. Yet, as a resident of Kentucky — one who’s adopted Las Vegas as his second home — he saw from an outside perspective how such an event wounds the entire community.
He’s on to something. Local mental health professionals worry that many Las Vegans are still suffering silently. For each person who’s sought help for their hyper-vigilance or nightmares, there are countless others who haven’t started experiencing such post-traumatic stress symptoms — yet. Or they have experienced them, but haven’t gotten help.
“Often, people who have suffered trauma have the unrealistic expectation that they’re going to go back to being the person they were before,” says Skye Counseling’s Jennifer Howe. In a way, they have to become a new self.
Every survivor’s unique experience calls for a unique treatment plan. But one consistent prescription is human connection. Counselors urge trauma survivors to reach out to friends, family, and groups, and engage in activities that foster mindfulness and release. Support groups have formed around hobbies ranging from kick-boxing to knitting.
“Doing activities can help trauma survivors find themselves in a new context,” Howe says. “Often, during therapy, they see that the trauma has brought out other things they needed to fulfill themselves. It’s good to talk about what happened to them, but it’s more important to address what’s been missing from their lives.”
In the following pages, six survivors — among them, October 1 survivors, a combat veteran, and a sex-trafficking victim — share the activities that have helped them cope with post-traumatic stress and find a new sense of purpose. Their remarkable courage in sharing their stories can best be acknowledged by taking them up on the challenge implicit in their determination to heal: “If we did it, you can too.”
This October 1 survivor finds solace and escape in country danceWatching Josh Abellera kick and slide in sync with the dozens of other line dancers on Stoney’s dance floor one Thursday night in June, it’s hard to imagine him being dragged away from the Route 91 concert grounds eight months earlier, unable to walk after a friend hoisted him over a fence and he fell, breaking his leg and dislocating his ankle.
Abellera thinks he and the two friends he was with were among the first to escape the shooting, because they were toward the back of the venue. When he tried to get up after the fall, he felt the most excruciating pain of his life. His friends got him as far as the back (south side) of the Tropicana, where a panicked crowd overtook the three and they were separated. Alone, unsure of what was going on, and unable to move, Abellera hid among some recycled boxes near a dumpster. When another wave of people fleeing the concert came by, he called for help. Strangers moved him to safety inside Tropicana’s employee entrance, and cut the jeans and boot from his mangled leg. Kindness and compassion counterbalanced the terror and confusion. A woman he didn’t know held his hand as he howled in pain. A friend who’d recognized Abellera sat with him until an ambulance came.
“For me, (the trauma) wasn’t from what happened on the main stage,” he says. “It was the aftermath … not knowing what was going on, seeing people that had been shot, seeing blood, people running away, people running out of the hotel saying there was another shooter, and being so helpless. That was what stuck with me.”
But the counterbalance was always there. Family and friends, including the two he’d lost track of that night, visited Abellera after his surgery. He woke from nightmares to find his father at his side. The Red Cross went to his home to help him apply for Victims of Crime Assistance funds. Clark County’s Vegas Strong Resiliency Center set him up with a therapist. UNLV accommodated his need for a semester off.
“Someone’s been there for me every step of the way,” he says. “It’s been amazing.”
Abellera was at the concert as part of a Stoney’s dance squad that led line dances and the two-step. Amanda Bowler, who headed the squad and escaped the shooting relatively unscathed, says she chose Abellera because he knew his stuff and was a “super happy, bubbly guy.” She didn’t seem him for a few months after October 1 — he was undergoing surgery and physical rehabilitation — but when he did return to Stoney’s, his positive attitude was intact.
“Dancing helps people feel better,” Bowler says. “You don’t have to worry about anything when you’re doing it. It feels good in the moment.”
Music and movement are also in Abellera’s blood. As a boy in Hawaii, he sang in the Honolulu Boys’ Choir and participated in his mother’s Filipino dance group. As a teenager in Las Vegas (his family moved here when he was 10), he sang in his church choir and took dance classes for his required P.E. credits. But it was when he turned 21 and his cousins took him to Stoney’s that Abellera says he discovered his passion.
“I feel like I’m in another place,” he says. “Like it’s just me and no one else in the place.”
There was one other person in the place recently who pierced Abellera’s trance, though. Less than two weeks after the Vegas Golden Knights lost the 2018 Stanley Cup to the Washington Capitals — in a playoff series that Abellera had followed as religiously as anyone in Las Vegas — Knights forward William Karlsson showed up at Stoney’s. In a photo of the two posted on Abellera’s Facebook page, he wrote, “Thank you, Will, for taking a picture with me. Thank you to you and the Golden Knights for what you did for the city.”
After surviving sex trafficking, she reclaimed her sense of self by reclaiming her bodyJan Griscom was accustomed to having strangers talk to her at the gym. She was a globe-trotting fitness expert with an advanced degree in biomechanical engineering who was frequently on TV and consulted with casino moguls and sporting goods companies on gym and equipment design. But she should have known there was something different about this guy, she’d later think — blaming herself, as many victims do, for not noticing that something was off about him.
In reality, the man was stalking her, determining how compliant a victim she’d be. Satisfied with what he learned, he kidnapped Griscom from her home one night. For the following two years, she says, he beat and raped her repeatedly and forced her to have sex with people for money that he pocketed. Griscom’s captor forced her into marriage as a means of stealing her assets, and isolated her from loved ones by lying to and threatening them. By the time she escaped, the former successful businesswoman was friendless and penniless. She spent years in shelters fearing for her life, in the legal system seeking restitution, and at the Rape Crisis Center healing.
You lose friends and relationships that you might need more than ever,” Griscom says. “I felt alone in dealing with it. Thankfully, I’ve always been a person who wants to learn, so I became my own advocate, a researcher looking for any information that would help me understand and find solutions.”
Her captor spent four months in jail, but the district attorney’s office ultimately dropped all the felony charges against him; he was convicted only of misdemeanors. Griscom became a crusader for justice. “Nevada currently ranks second in the country for murders in domestic violence,” she says, “and 47th for prosecuting those cases. The only way to change things for victims is to speak up, and who better to do it than someone who’s been through the experience?”
Meanwhile, she was fighting night terrors and other PTSD symptoms. For help, she turned to something familiar: working out. Overcoming the jitters that being back in a gym triggered was therapeutic, and Griscom found comfort in reclaiming her physical body. But whereas she used to focus on speed and endurance, competing in sports like skiing and triathlons, now she’s a bodybuilder.
“At 63, I lift heavier weights than I ever have,” she says. “To me, it’s a suit of armor. If I can be strong and muscular, then I feel maybe I’d have a chance of changing the outcome if it happened again. I started taking self-defense. I learned to fire a gun. I’ve gone to a shooting range, because I will never find myself in that situation again. I think it’s a huge part of me taking back my life.”
The Rape Crisis Center’s Daniele Dreitzer says, “Sexual violence is about power and control. In addition to counseling, any activity that helps the survivor regain a sense of empowerment and take back the control in their life can be very beneficial in the healing process.”
Griscom has also returned to her pre-trauma habit of volunteering, though now she focuses on raising money for Shade Tree women’s shelter and working with victims of human trafficking and domestic violence. She’s back on the speaking circuit again, too — as a sex trafficking survivor rather than a fitness expert. After a recent speech at a university, a couple told her about their kidnapped daughter, who was still missing. The mother hugged Griscom, which, she says, made her feel alive for the first time in a long time.
“I used to wake up every single day wondering if that would be the day that he’d kill me,” she says. “It takes time for that to go away, even after you’re out. So, moments like that are really important, and they’re gifts that I wouldn’t have gotten if I’d been silent.”
This war veteran needed a support network to cope with his PTSD — so he built oneNoel Huerta didn’t have an easy life to begin with. The son of Mexican immigrants who divorced when he was 3, he grew up in Northern California with a mom who was frequently absent because of work and a dad who constantly urged him to be a doctor or lawyer so he wouldn’t have to slave all day for low wages like his parents. But Huerta wasn’t cut out for professional life — or at least he didn’t think so at the time. Alienated by his parents’ expectations, he went his own way.
That way, ironically, included imposing a harsh sentence on himself.
“I went to a recruiter and asked which branch of the military was hardest, and he said the Marines, so I went with that,” he says. “I did well on my ASVAB (entrance exam); I could’ve gone anywhere. But I wanted to do the toughest thing, so I chose the infantry. … Growing up, I didn’t have many friends. It was hard. I was always trying to fit in. That’s what led me to the military. I wanted to do something where we’d all be equal. Every person in the platoon gets reborn.”
After boot camp and infantry school, Huerta was deployed to Afghanistan and, later, Japan. He was in the Marine unit that was sent in the spring of 2008 to bolster NATO troops during the Helmand Province Campaign of the Afghanistan War, or OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom). The Marines met with stiff, unexpected resistance and suffered high casualties.
“The day I was wounded in Afghanistan, I witnessed three of my fellow Marines get killed in front of me,” he says. “I always felt like it was my fault, because we didn’t have enough combat medics, and one of them left another guy to try and save me.”
His unit was on patrol, sent to clear out a compound. As soon as they got out of their Humvee, they were ambushed. Huerta’s scope was blown off his gun through his Kevlar helmet and into the back of his neck below the skull. Though he was bleeding profusely from the head, his wound was nonfatal, something the medic couldn’t have known at the time.
“Patrol after patrol after that, I started seeing things,” he says. “I started becoming …” His voice trails off. “It got worse from there. We got blown up a week later.”
Huerta stayed in the Marines for three more years before deciding, with his wife, to leave with an honorable discharge. Outside the military was no better. Although he had a good record and was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in computer science, the best job he could get was as a $9-an-hour security guard. He had a wife and daughter to support. His anxiety grew.
“At night, I feel it,” he says. “Certain music triggers it. Certain features of that (ambush) scene trigger me. I think of that scene, and I get terrified. It got to where I didn’t want to go out of my own house. I took it out on my own family.”
Wait times for mental health appointments at the VA were three months or longer, so to cope, Huerta sought out fellow Marines. They drank and gambled, which didn’t help. According to a 2015 New York Times article, 13 people from Huerta’s battalion had committed suicide. He says 39 have done so since 2011, in his unit alone. At times, he considered joining their ranks.
But he didn’t. He persisted, finishing his BA and embarking on an MBA. Through sheer grit, he got his foot in the door at a gaming company, watching security monitors, in 2013. Gradually, he worked his way up, eventually becoming an IT executive. That didn’t mean that his PTSD went away. As his career blossomed, his mood darkened.
Then, in 2016, something happened. A Marine brother from L.A. told Huerta about a chance encounter, at a homeless shelter, with Nate Boyer, a former Green Beret and NFL hopeful who’d signed, briefly, with the Seattle Seahawks. The two struck up a friendship, talked about the common challenges of transitioning from the military and professional sports to civilian life. What if they brought professional athletes and military vets together to support each other during this transition? They could work out together and then talk in a peer-group setting. Merging Vets and Players, or MVP, was born.
In 2017, Huerta started a Vegas branch of MVP with a handful of guys. Today, it has nearly 200 members (the L.A. group has more than 300). It combines one hour of mixed martial arts workout and one hour of fireside chat every Friday evening. The group has also branched out into community service, partnering with other nonprofits to help people in all kinds of need — homelessness, hunger, and, more recently, October 1 survivors.
Huerta loves the community service aspect of MVP, but the heart of the program is the Friday night get-togethers.
“To be honest, it pushes me, because you have so many people around you,” he says. “The veterans and former athletes, they’re competitive. … And then, once we’ve gotten that out, we’ve bonded. It makes it a lot easier to open up.”
He says he has every member’s number saved in his phone. Today, whenever he’s down, there are hundreds of people he can call for help. Not bad for a kid who grew up with no friends.
After October 1, she found comfort in the power of wordsFaryn Duncan figures she was 10 feet away from the fence that separated the crowd from the stage when Stephen Paddock began firing on them from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel tower that overlooked the Route 91 concert grounds. Duncan was with a good friend and that friend’s mom. They stayed alive by first hiding under the stage, and then following a concert worker who led them to a safe escape route. No one in her party was physically injured, but Duncan instinctively knew that her friend was getting hurt — emotionally, mentally — and her protective reflex kicked in. Since that night, she has cared for the young woman in every way she knows how, checking in regularly, listening, just being there.
Any mental health professional will tell you that you have to put your own oxygen mask on first, though, so to speak. What has Duncan done to take care of herself?
First, she opened up to her parents, her mother here and her dad in Texas.
“When I got home that night, I felt so weird. The whole time it just didn’t feel real,” she says. “It was afterward that it hit me. … I talked to my dad for the next couple weeks over the phone every day, and my mom and I, we live together, so we talked every day. It was pretty constant for the following couple of weeks. My parents are amazing.”
And she wrote — a lot. A journalism major and editor at the UNLV newspaper, Scarlet & Gray, Duncan makes sense of things through composition. The morning of October 2, after a restless night, she picked up her phone and spilled her thoughts into her notes app.
“It just kept going and going and going,” she says. “After I got it out … I could talk about it without breaking down and be okay. So, I try to do that whenever I have anything, relationship problems or figuring out what to do with my life. I write about it so I can figure it out.”
The piece she wrote about the shooting was published online Monday, October 2, and in print a week later. Duncan continues to write therapeutically about once a week, and strongly encourages others to try it.
“You don’t have to be good at it,” she says. “It can be embarrassing when you write something down and it doesn’t sound good, but it’s not about that. Whether it’s super poetic or not, it doesn’t matter. It’s just healing.”
When October 1 memories loom, she finds peace amid the dunesOn Sunday afternoon, October 1, Leala Tyree, her sons Devin and Christian, and their close family friend Heather were sipping cold drinks and talking between Route 91 acts. All well-trained gun owners, they were accustomed to considering the vulnerabilities of public places where they spent time. Surveying the skyline around the concert grounds, one of them — Tyree doesn’t remember who exactly — observed that the spot they’d staked out, to the left of the square end of the catwalk extending from the main stage, would be shielded by the stage’s overhead structure if an attack came from above.
“We were bored and had nothing else to do,” she says.
She never expected that a few hours later their idle speculation would be proven true. When the shooting started, Leala, her sons, and Heather ducked down behind the fence separating the stage from the catwalk, invisible to the shooter. Staying low, they skirted the stage and adjacent vendor booths, ducked out of the southeast side of the venue and into the parking lot, where their truck was parked, uninjured. On their way, however, they encountered another family, a girl who was bleeding heavily from a shot to the arm and her panic-stricken parents. Devin, at 34, the older of Leala’s two sons, had taken charge during the escape. After shepherding his loved ones to their truck, he drove back to pick up the second family. Fighting traffic and road closures, and eventually with the help of a police escort, he delivered the girl to UMC, the third Route 91 victim to arrive there that night. She survived and, after multiple surgeries, is regaining use of her arm.
“One thing that haunts me,” Leala says, “is that it’s my job as a mother to protect my kids. But in that situation, it was my kid (Devin) who protected me.”
The three months following Route 91 were a roller coaster for Leala. She had a panic attack at work, which previously had been her refuge from the flashbacks and emotions that overwhelmed her during off hours. In December, her boss let her go, citing low productivity, and she wouldn’t have stable employment again until the spring. Meanwhile, the atmosphere at home was strained. Christian and Devin, who live with Leala and her husband Bob (Christian’s dad), were affected by the shooting in their own ways. And the family was dealing with pre-existing factors, such as a vision condition slowly robbing Bob of his independence, that complicated their ability to cope with severe trauma.
“It’s a mess,” Leala said on the phone one day in June. “I don’t know how we’re going to get through this.”
During the tough times, she’s found three consistent sources of refuge. The first is the Facebook group for October 1 survivors, a place where she can go anytime to feel heard and understood. The second is her therapist, who offered free assistance when Leala was out of work, teaching her critical skills to get through panic attacks. And the third is ATVing.
“We are big outdoorsy people, and I have an amazing set of friends,” Leala says. “We go ride four-wheelers all the time out in Logandale, and that has been — some days — just my saving grace. We’ll just go out there, and be on the sand and just ride.”
Her body language reflects the freedom she says she gets from the sport. Her darting eyes and stiff spine relax as she talks about zipping up hills and jumping over dunes on her Polaris Sportsman 450.
“It’s very liberating. You’re out there, and it’s just you and the sand and the wind and nothing else to worry about,” she says. “I was coming down a hill too fast once, and I was turning and caught an edge, and the four-wheeler was going one way, and I went the other. And I was laughing the whole time. It’s sand, it’s soft — you’re not going to get hurt. You can’t do that stuff on the street!”
Leala and Devin are planning to put together ATV trips for people from the Facebook group, starting around the one-year anniversary of the shooting.
“The riding itself is relaxing in its own way,” Devin says. “You get away from people. You see things you couldn’t see otherwise, and if you do it, you’re probably spending the night, so you get to enjoy nature out away from other people. It really takes your mind off things. … If you can replace that memory (of October 1) with a better one, then it really helps.”
Leala agrees. She says that October 1 survivors may have differing views on conspiracy theories, gun control, and other controversies, but most would drop what they’re doing and race to the side of another who’s in need, regardless of his or her beliefs.
“We’re all connected by what we’ve been through,” she says. “We’re family now.”
A prescription for outdoor adventure nourishes his mental healthLegal trouble forced Thom Mazzier into inpatient treatment. His attorney recommended it after Mazzier had a conflict with his ex-wife’s attorney during their divorce. But he’s glad it happened now. During the six-week program, he learned that he has anxiety, bipolar disorder, and major depression. It helped him understand the emotional struggle that he’s been engaged in his whole life — a struggle that culminated in a suicide attempt.
But clarity doesn’t equal resolution, and his recovery journey has been complicated.
“I realized that, for me, it’s going to take a hodgepodge of different things,” he says. “I had electroshock therapy, numerous tests to find out if there’s a chemical imbalance in my brain — they came back negative. I’ve been to inpatient and outpatient. I’ve been to therapy, group therapy, had several types of medication — I tried Abilify and it did make me feel like gambling! And now, I’ve discovered hiking, camping, adventurous stuff, and that has been really therapeutic for me, probably my number one treatment.”
His passion for the outdoors started when a woman from the over-40 singles Meetup that Mazzier belonged to in his hometown of Elizabethtown, Kentucky, invited him to be her plus-one for a hike to the Red River Gorge.
Mazzier was hooked. He branched out to Meetup groups that focus on hiking, and then looked beyond Kentucky. He developed a passion for natural arches and bridges, leading him West. Using early retirement funds that he’d saved from a factory job, he couch-surfed, used AirBnB, and took advantage of Allegiant flight deals to put together affordable trips. Before he knew it, he had joined 800 Meetups — for outdoor recreation, food, music, photography, and other pursuits — traveling to their events across the U.S.
“There’s one back home called bourbon and the Bible,” he says. “They set a time at a pub, drink bourbon, and discuss the Bible.”
But there’s a special place in his heart for Sin City, which he’s visited eight times in the last two years for Vegas Hikers Meetup outings. He enjoys gambling and exploring local restaurants while he’s here. And he likes outdoor concerts, like Route 91, where he was the night of the shooting.
Mazzier says he still hasn’t fully processed what he went through there, but it won’t deter him from coming back and seeking refuge on Southern Nevada’s beautiful, challenging trails.
“It’s therapeutic for me to come here,” he says. “Being outdoors, feeling free, looking at nature — it makes you forget reality, in a way. You feel like you’re in a different world.”