Posted by Steve Lettau on Nov 08, 2022

An Iraq veteran works through his trauma — and adopts a mission to help others

By Kate Silver

Zach Skiles thought he was fine.

He completed his time in the Marines at 22 in 2004 after serving in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. His unit was shelled so many times he'd lost count. He was mourning friends lost in combat. But he was home, ready for what was next. "I was just happy to be alive," he says.

Still, the tendrils of war followed him. Skiles, soft-spoken with kind green eyes, found himself waking up to his own screams at night. He had spells where he'd wind up in a public place, like a Walmart, with no idea how he got there. "I didn't realize that I was in a bit of shock," he says. "And I continued to just disassociate every day."

For those first few years, he bounced between San Francisco and Los Angeles, worked different jobs, and took college classes. He even acted in local theater, channeling his anger into rage-filled characters. But when that anger and frustration started to consume him, he numbed himself with booze and weed. He fell hard for conspiracy theories about the 9/11 terrorist attacks and found himself using phrases like "New World Order" and "the Illuminati." He got fired in 2008 when his employer learned he'd been organizing conspiracy-oriented demonstrations in the community. "Then I slowly spiraled and ended up homeless," he says. "My family didn't really know what to do." After crashing on a friend's couch, he started sleeping on park benches in the Bay Area.