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Better off

Photo courtesy of Pacific Marine Mammal Center Youngsville High School graduate Colby Hollabaugh, with his wife Mallorie, at Pacific Marine Mammal Center.

“Because a sea lion needs help, that doesn’t mean the sea lion is weak.”

At the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, Calif., Youngsville High School graduate Colby Hollabaugh rescues sea lions that are stranded, entangled, or otherwise in need of assistance.

Hollabaugh understands those sea lions.

When he returned to the states from overseas deployments with the United States Marine Corps, Hollabaugh was entangled with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“It’s hard to define what PTSD feels like,” he said. “A lot of people don’t understand, it’s different for all veterans. I felt lost and listless.”

Photo courtesy of Pacific Marine Mammal Center Youngsville High School graduate Colby Hollabaugh prepares for the release of a sea lion from the Pacific Marine Mammal Center.

“I found it’s my own challenge,” he said. “I get to rise above it all the time.”

The lessons he learns from the sea lions help.

And what started with a single step for Hollabaugh, he is now passing on to other veterans.

In the PMMC Sea Lions for Service Members program, veterans assist with the rescue and rehabilitation of marine mammals. During that process, the animals go from their homes in the sea to a very different place. Eventually, though, they return home. It’s a lot like what many veterans have been through.

After graduating from Youngsville in 2005, Hollabaugh joined the U.S. Marine Corps.

He was trained as a unit-level switchboard operator.

“I got deployed to Japan to be in an artillery unit,” he said. “They did not need a switchboard operator.”

They did need someone who knew something about weapons and could communicate that information.

As U.S. weapons systems were sold to allies, the people receiving those weapons needed training in how to use them. Hollabaugh trained the trainers.

“I was lucky to use the shooting skills I developed in northwestern Pennsylvania,” he said.

He was often training people in the use of “crew-served” weapon systems — not exactly things you might find at the local rod and gun club.

The M2 .50 caliber machine gun. The 240 Bravo medium machine gun. And the Mark 19 40mm belt-fed grenade launcher — with a maximum fire rate of six rounds per second.

“Those all required a team for service, handling, set-up…” Hollabaugh said.

“I helped the Japanese Defense Force learn about those weapons,” he said. “I got to work with the Thai Marines, purchasing M-16 A2. The Thai Marines, they were crazy fun people to work with.”

Fun? Yes. Marksmen? No. “They were terrible shots,” he said.

Thailand was also different from Youngsville.

“We spent all day in the jungle,” he said. “I learned to hunt a cobra. We hunted down scorpions. I learned to cook insects. That’s where I tasted cobra-blood whiskey for the first and only time.”

His combat service was a strictly non-combat operation.

As part of Joint Service Operation Task Force Philippines, Hollabaugh was involved in breaking the influence of al-Qaeda in the Philippines.

“We operated in that theater in a protective fashion,” he said. “We helped stabilize the Philippine army.”

After that, Hollabaugh was stationed in North Carolina for a year.

Then, he was out of the service and working in the corporate world.

That was a major change from military service.

In the Marines, “you’re a young man who has a huge sense of service and purpose,” Hollabaugh said. “You work with your friends to achieve what you think is impossible.”

“Being part of something bigger than me… I didn’t know how much I would miss that,” he said.

He was employed by a tech company in Cincinnati. That company moved him out to California. Then, in 2017, he was laid off.

He went back to school, studying psychology, but he also joined his wife, Mallorie, as a volunteer at the PMMC.

He started in animal care where he met Kendrick — “one of the patients I related to most.”

“When I rescued him, he was adult sea lion size, but he weighed about 150 pounds,” Hollabaugh said. “He should have weighed closer to 300 pounds.”

“He was entangled pretty badly,” he said. “He had a hook in his left cheek and another hook in the right flipper.”

“It was pretty bad,” Hollabaugh said. “He couldn’t eat.”

The physical healing process took some time. Other parts, not so much.

“We get him unentangled… within a day, Kendrick broke out of his enclosure,” Hollabaugh said. “We have a hard time keeping Kendrick in his enclosure.”

“He wasn’t broken,” he said. “He needed a little bit of help. It’s ok to need a little bit of help.”

“I was the same way,” Hollabaugh said. “I didn’t want to reach out for help. Once I did get some help, my life changed. Everything about my life got better.”

He was starting to be a part of something bigger than himself. His PTSD was starting to improve.

“In recent years, people have noticed it less,” he said.

From animal care, Hollabaugh found a better niche. “They needed some help in outreach,” he said. “I had some experience doing that. Within in a few weeks I was at PMMC a few days a week. I got very into the education program.”

It was then that he got a chance to help a different group — veterans who, like himself, could benefit from helping sea lions work through situations that are similar to military service.

“It was through my involvement in the education program that my supervisor brought up me leading the Sea Lions for Service Members,” Hollabaugh said. “They had run a couple programs before. The program never kicked off well.”

The previous leader of the program was “an incredible person” but not a veteran, he said. “The big shift in the program was bringing in a leader who was also a veteran.”

“I was a veteran, knew how to care for all the animals, and I was good at the education,” Hollabaugh said. “It meant everything to me. PMMC and SLSM gave me that purpose.”

“I wanted to use our patients to relate our struggles and hardships,” he said. The patients — mostly sea lions and other marine mammals, but PMMC will even stabilize a turtle until it can find a more appropriate home — go from the wild, to captivity, back to the wild. They have to learn to adjust to those changes.

“I wanted to show my fellow veterans there’s nothing wrong with a sea lion that needs help,” he said.

It wasn’t easy to find veterans for the program. “Recruitment was very hard,” Hollabaugh said. “In order to get help, you sometimes have to admit you need help. Admitting you need help can be very, very hard.”

“That’s what I came into the program looking to do — encourage my fellow brothers and sisters to reach out for help when they need to,” he said.

He lists veterans James, Naomi, Lisa, and Erika as the success stories for the program.

James is still a volunteer. The others are part of the PMMC team as service team members.

Media exposure has helped.

“We now have five or six people we’re talking to to get them into programs starting January,” Hollabaugh said.

He hopes they, like the sea lions, will be better off when they leave.

“We get used to their presence,” Hollabaugh said of the sea lion patients. “You say goodbye to animals that you treated for six months. You send them off on a journey and you know there’s a good chance that you’ll never see them again. It’s bittersweet.”

“To see the sea lions stand before the majesty of the ocean… then go in head-first,” he said. “The feeling when a patient leaves us, it’s heartbreaking, but so exciting. There’s joy that comes with it.”

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