Veterans with PTSD help rehabilitate injured sea lions

Veterans with PTSD help injured sea lions

A unique program in Southern California pairs sea lions who've been hurt in the wild and veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.

These animals, rescued along the Orange County coastline, were brought to the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, California. Some sea lions are sick, some injured.

Colby Hollabaugh, a former Marine, leads the Sea Lions for Service Members course. He's been diagnosed with PTSD, and that's helped him empathize with wounded animals, like the sea lion named Zion.

"Zion was very badly entangled, and pinned down against a buoy," Hollabaugh said. "I saw a lot of me in Zion. Zion thought he was doing just fine, he was gonna figure it all out on his own, right? And it's not until someone helps you that you realize how badly you needed the help."

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Zion was brought to the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, California. CBS News

Veterans Lisa Stein and Erika Diotalevi discovered the program while searching for help for PTSD.

"A lot of times when you get out, especially if you have PTSD, you're lost," Stein told correspondent Carter Evans. "You're nervous in crowds. You have nightmares. You can't talk to anybody.  It's a lot like these animals. They have no voice."

Like the military, not all the work here is glamorous. But these veterans agree caring for the animals has a calming effect.

Stein said, "It clears your mind, 'cause all you're doing is thinking of looking at their eyes and whiskers and little flippers."

"Focusing on their behavior and kind of — almost calming it was to see them," said Diotalevi. "And it's just like, OK, you're animals and non-judgmental!"

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Feeding time for rehabilitating sea lions, helped by veterans in the Sea Lions for Service Members program. CBS News

The center has rescued more than 180 animals this year. Some require surgery.

Veteran Naomi Prazak watched as a critically-ill seal was fed through a tube. Seeing an animal fighting for life triggered memories.

"Everybody was scared," Prazak said. "I know for me, it was my emotions, I couldn't control my emotions at all. And I felt like I was really weak."

But each found strength working alongside other veterans, and bonds formed, just like the sea lions.

"It was life-changing," said Hollabaugh.

Evans asked, "What is it about putting veterans together? It seems to create something special."

"They can feel like a team again," Hollabaugh replied, "and they can feel like they're doing something positive. They can look at the animals, they can look in their eyes, and they can understand that the animal has struggled, too. And the animal isn't weak — it's not broken because it needed help."

When the animals recover, the vets are invited to witness their return home. And like battle buddies in the military, they're released with a friend to help them find their way. 

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Sea lions released back into the ocean. CBS News

"It was very emotional," Prazak said, "because they were on to another chapter, and it felt like that was like what I was dealing with — on to another chapter."

Hollabaugh said, "It's just like you learn in the military. Sometimes you're gonna have to crawl along under the barbed wire. And that's just what you have to do until you find yourself getting that stride of service back."

It's a new mission for these veterans, helping sea life to heal, and maybe healing their own invisible scars along the way.

  • For information on sponsoring the Sea Lions for Service Members program at Pacific Marine Mammal Center, click here.