A decade and a half ago, during the invasion of Iraq, U.S. Army Sgt. Josh Hansen’s job was to find roadside bombs. Like Jeremy Renner’s role in “The Hurt Locker,” he was the guy who went out in front of the unit, clearing the way so the soldiers following behind could find safe passage.
Fifteen years later, he’s still helping his fellow soldiers get through the rubble without getting killed.
But he’s not in Iraq anymore, or the Army for that matter. Hansen is retired and living in Bountiful with his wife, Melissa.
And the bombs he’s searching for aren’t made of TNT. They’re made of PTSD.
It’s 10 a.m. at the Delton bowling lanes and Hansen is throwing strikes. Or trying to. He’s part of a party of about 30 veterans of various ages and affiliations — some Navy, some Air Force, some Army — trying to do the same thing.
The activity is one of more than 100 that will be hosted this year by Continue Mission, the nonprofit organization Josh and Melissa Hansen started eight years ago. Last year they did 158 events, an average of three a week, doing everything from bowling to hiking to cross-country skiing to snowshoeing to mountain biking to paddleboarding to pickleball and many more.
“Our goal is to get vets out of the house and moving, doing recreational activities together,” explains Melissa Hansen.
Their motto: No veterans left behind.
Their reason for existing: Suicide prevention and mental health awareness.
“People without mental health issues don’t understand how hard it is to get out the door,” says Hansen.
He’s speaking from experience, of course. When he returned home after his second deployment in Iraq, he thought seriously about taking his own life. And it wasn’t just because of the months he spent in hospitals recovering from a traumatic brain injury and scrambled-up insides. That was easy compared to the PTSD flashbacks and the depression they triggered.
Talk about no good deed going unpunished. Hansen didn’t enlist in the Army until he watched the twin towers fall on 9/11 and decided to join the war on terror and defend America. He was 30 years old and had a successful business running his own mechanics shop and traveling the motocross circuit working on dirt bikes.
The Army took advantage of his mechanical skills by deploying him to Iraq and putting him literally on the front lines to search out and detonate improvised explosive devices (IEDs) placed by the insurgents.
“You either found the bombs or they found you,” Hansen says.
He found plenty of them, and saved a lot of lives, but in 2007 they found him. After his vehicle sustained eight direct IED hits, he was flown out of Iraq with a Purple Heart and too many injuries to count.
When her husband returned stateside, “I had never heard of traumatic brain injury,” says Melissa Hansen, Hansen’s high school sweetheart (they were married right out of high school). She left her job as a senior scientist at a pharmaceutical company — her degree is in chemical engineering — to help Hansen traverse three years of intensive recovery.
He emerged 50 pounds heavier, with a foggy head and “thinking I’d be better off to everyone dead.”
He took that frame of mind with him to the funeral of a fellow vet who had followed through on a similar thought.
His friend’s suicide jarred him. “I saw how much it affected his wife and family and all those close to him,” Hansen says.
It turned him in the other direction — to seek professional help and start the long slow climb out of the darkness.
The best medicine, he found, was getting outside, doing physical things, and connecting with others who had also experienced “the hell of war.”
One day he turned to Melissa Hansen and said, “I will never be what I once was; I need to look forward to what I can do with my life.”
The two put their heads together and Continue Mission was born.
“In the military, it’s Charlie Mike — continue the mission you’re on,” Hansen says, explaining the organization’s name. “Here it’s to continue your mission in life and healing.”
Untold thousands have been affected by this independent, truly Mom and Pop organization that relies on donations and grants to stay afloat. Working out of their house in Bountiful, the Hansens organize the activities, drive the van, provide equipment when necessary, line up sponsors and, most importantly, constantly search for veterans to help.
Nicholaus Connole is one of them. He discovered Continue Mission eight years ago when, like Hansen, he retired from the Army due to a TBI and 13 herniated discs.
Has Continue Mission helped him?
“Hundred percent they saved my life,” he says as he awaits his turn to bowl. “And they’ve saved a lot of other lives too.”
“Here you can be yourself and feel safe,” he adds. “You don’t have to sugarcoat like you do to civilians. It’s the camaraderie first, then the physical.”
Mandee Walton is a retired army officer who watched her first husband, and fellow vet, take his own life in 2015. Shortly after that she discovered Continue Mission. She’s been a regular ever since.
“If I’m feeling down and depressed, I know I just have to make it to the next activity and I’ll see my friends and they’ll give me a hug,” she says. “They’re not friends anymore, they’re family. Some organizations run activities for veterans, but it’s more like them and us. Here it’s just us.”
Observing his like-minded peers as he awaits his next turn to bowl, Hansen, their host, says, “I can’t just sit still and not take care of my brothers and sisters after what I’ve been through.
“A part of me will never leave Iraq, the carnage, the destruction, the death that I saw. But when you’re bowling or hiking or skiing, and you’re doing it alongside someone you can trust and talk to during the darkest of times, you don’t think about those things.”