Stronger Together - Mark Comb's Struggle to Stay, Part 4

Jun 22, 2017

Credit Cameron Williams

Last September Mark Combs and Cameron Elias Williams set out for California hoping to develop careers in the arts and entertainment industry. But once they reached Denver they found it difficult to get their lives financially under control. They also fought loneliness.

“It's been, it's been kinda tough to be honest. I didn't think I would miss people back home this much,” Mark recorded after a lonely Thanksgiving in Denver.

Unfortunately, things went from bad to worse.

The Enemy Inside

When spring rolled around, Mark reported that their furniture was being reclaimed, they were facing possible eviction, and … life handed him another blow.

Mark is an Iraqi war veteran with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder who spent all of the previous year working on media campaigns to bring more awareness about the epidemic of veteran suicide. He's also no stranger to suicidal thoughts himself. He's personally lost one war buddy after another (one good friend, Tyler Burroughs, committed suicide just before he left for L.A.).

Mark got word this spring he’d lost another brother. “He was a Navy corpsman, a medic. He was attached to the Marines,” Mark recalled with a heavy heart.

Dan Alexander was a close friend of Mark’s in Morgantown, West Virginia. The news came as a shock, and for a few days the cause of death was unknown.

“I've never been in a situation where I hope somebody OD’d, but I don't know if I could take another suicide. It's beginning to wear me out,” Mark said.

Dan died of a heroin overdose. This is the second veteran buddy Mark's lost this year, and it wouldn't be the last. He lost another veteran friend the same way - to heroin - three weeks later.

"This is how it happens," Mark said after hearing about another veteran friend's death. He was referring to vets killing themselves. "I'm tired of fighting." War just rages on for vets like him; the nightmares run on repeat, especially, he mentioned, if temperatures reach above 85 degrees while you try to sleep. "The only difference is, now the enemy is on the inside."

Financially, Mark did begin to get back on his feet, well, kind of.  He and Cameron did lose their furniture, but they were able to borrow some money for rent to avoid being evicted.

“There's just constant feeling like we just keep failing. We try and try and we just fail and fail.”

Lily and TC (short for Terror Czar) in Denver.
Credit Mark Combs

Strength in Numbers

It may seem like Mark and Cameron set themselves up for failure in California by not preparing enough, not having the resources to get them where they wanted to be. But in some ways they were more prepared than most because they had each other.

“I have nobody here other than Cameron. I don't know what to do without him,” Mark said.

“He's one of the strongest dudes I know,” Cameron reported one night. “Physically and mentally he's been through a lot in life. But any time he gets knocked down he gets back up and just start swinging harder. So I always know in the back of my mind, he's going to be alright.”

Eventually, Cameron and Mark decided Denver wasn’t the right place for them. Still, returning to Appalachia was not an option.

"West Virginia and Colorado have so much in common," Mark observed one spring evening. "The difference is Colorado is working towards the future, and West Virginia is fighting tooth and nail, clinging to the past."

“We are about as down and out as you can go,” he added, “and in no way in my mind am I am like, ‘Yeah, I'm ready to go back.’ No, I'm not.”

Shifting Life Targets

“You know this whole experience of taking a leap of faith, driving all the way to Cali, kind of falling flat on our face, having to backtrack, come here [to Denver], and once again kind of getting smacked in the face by life. It's been a very eye-opening experience,” Cameron recorded one afternoon on a walk with his dog Lily in Denver.

Hard times and isolation from friends and family forced both Cameron and Mark to reevaluate some life goals.

“Before I used to think like, ‘I just want to make it big; I want to make millions of dollars.’ I mean, that's still the end goal -- shoot for the stars as they always teach us -- but it's not important to me. It's just the perk of it all. What is really important to me is my friends, my family, and living a life that my parents raised me to live and being the person that they they raised me to be," Cameron said.
Credit DeWayne Odem Photography

“Before I used to think like, ‘I just want to make it big. I want to make millions of dollars.’ I mean, that's still the end goal -- shoot for the stars as they always teach us -- but it's not important to me. It's just the perk of it all. What is really important to me is my friends, my family, and living a life that my parents raised me to live and being the person that they they raised me to be.”

“Money's not involved in that at all,” Mark added.

Together, he and Cameron decided when their year-lease is up this October, they’ll move to Chicago, where Cameron has family and they both have more friends.

And even though Mark is determined not to return to Appalachia, his thoughts keep drifting back to West Virginia.

“I see the people in West Virginia. I see their struggle. There's more that can be done right now and there's a whole hell of more to focus on than just trying to bring coal mines back.”

After being in Denver for half a year, Mark started joking about going back to school - this time, law school - so he can more effectively take on certain Appalachian politicians.

But it sounds less and less like a joke these days.

"Ultimately, I would want to focus on public interest law to help protect our environment, our people, and give the next generation the best fighting chance that they have. Somebody has got to.”

He still wants to go to Chicago, but he's adapting his dreams of thriving in the entertainment industry and instead is considering returning back to school.

“WVU's got one of the greatest law schools in the country. It's a top 100 law school," said Mark. "And, you know, it would be nice to be back around people that I grew so attached to.”

“Who knows where this journey is going to end up,” he added.

Cameron wants to continue to focus on developing a career in the music industry and is working on a master’s degree. He also wants to be closer to his family, some of whom live in the Chicago area.

“I'm an open book with blank pages just waiting for words to be written down to finish the story. I have no idea. It's weird no idea what's next. But I'm excited for it," said Cameron. "Whatever the future holds, I'm ready.”

Looking Forward

The next chapter looks like it will be in Chicago. It looks like it will include more friends and family. And it looks like it might have some funny in it.

“Being here in Colorado, being on this trip, and just so much stuff going wrong and the depression that's followed has provided both Cameron and I with just a ton of source material for a stand up comedy,” Mark said.

Will Mark and Cameron head in different directions? Will more education open different doors? It's hard to say without a crystal ball. We’ll leave Mark and Cameron’s Struggle to Stay story for now, but we’ll continue to follow these far-flung native sons to find out, a year from now, how they fare.

Music in this episode was provided by Marisa Anderson. This story is part of an ongoing series called The Struggle to Stay, available on the Inside Appalachia podcast.