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Navy Veteran Uses Photography to Work Through PTSD and Help Other Vets

Aaron Mahlon Thomas uses photography to work through PTSD.EXPAND
Aaron Mahlon Thomas uses photography to work through PTSD.
Jubenal Aguilar

Aaron Mahlon Thomas, a U.S. Navy veteran, uses the art of capturing light and creating images to cope with a condition that once alienated him from his family.

Thomas, a North Texas-based photographer and documentarian, wants to use photography to help other veterans manage their post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, a problem he unknowingly had for decades.

“The knowledge of photography and the documenting and art piece of it, those are the results of the activity,” Thomas says. “But the activity itself is about the therapy, and the therapy is about rebuilding families."

A couple of years ago, Thomas created Photographically Touching the Soul Deeper, a nonprofit photography-based charity in the works geared toward helping veterans afflicted by PTSD. He created the term Photographically Touching the Soul Deeper as a backronym stemming from the cognitive condition.

“I was destroying my family,” he says. “I was angry. I was frustrated. I was depressed. I was isolated, all those things, and I was an unbearable person until I found photography and learned to use it the way I use it. That’s what made me decide I can give this back to others.”

Now, Thomas is looking for donors to help launch a program based on his creative coping device.

Stress at Sea
Every day, millions of Americans struggle with PTSD. And many of them served in the U.S. military. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, PTSD afflicts about 30 percent of Vietnam veterans, as many as 12 percent of Gulf War veterans and 11-20 percent of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For almost 40 years, Thomas unknowingly struggled with PTSD, which partly stemmed from a catastrophic event he experienced while stationed in the Mediterranean Sea.

After Thomas dropped out of high school, he joined the Navy in 1975. He became an electrician’s mate and served on the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy where he traveled to over 30 countries. One November night, during a fueling operation 70 nautical miles east of Sicily, the John F. Kennedy collided with the USS Belknap, a guided missile cruiser, causing a disaster.

“Two ships collided,” Thomas says. “It was jet fuel that caught on fire, and we had to fight fire for three days, and a lot of people died and got hurt. And that was a stressor point for me.”

Faith and Technology
After serving two years in active duty and another four in the Reserve, he left the military in 1981 and looked for work. He found a job maintaining locomotive signals for train tracks, using the electrical engineering skills he acquired in the Navy. But as the dawn of the digital age approached, computer systems replaced Thomas. After he spent a brief time homeless, his mother loaned him enough money to buy an IBM XT computer.

While living in a small apartment with no furniture, working odd jobs in exchange for rent, Thomas sat on a flipped-over milk crate and taught himself how to use programming applications on his XT. Eventually, he found work in IT support.

He says his faith delivered him from poverty and gave him a focus to help others through his self-taught tech skills. In the early ’80s, Thomas started a computer security firm, which he ran for almost three decades. He based his business model on helping others expand their computer knowledge as he did.

“My gift was technology,” Thomas says. “And I had a slogan, and I had based my gift on this slogan. People would ask me, ‘How did you get where you are?’ and I would say, ‘I’m the Moses of technology sent to tell the Pharaoh of computer illiteracy to let my people go.’ So, I literally built that business on ‘It’s better to give than to receive.’”

At the height of his company’s success, he made six figures a year. However, his business started to wane in the new millennium, losing customers after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“It was after 9/11, and I prayed a prayer because I couldn’t take care of my family,” Thomas says. “And I asked my God, ‘What can I do to survive? I have a young wife and children, and the gift you have given me is no longer adequate.’”

After the 2008 U.S. recession, his company was bankrupt. And through bouts of depression, anxiety attacks and spells of anger, he began alienating himself from his wife and daughters.

At the time, his older brother, who is also a Navy veteran, was diagnosed with PTSD. As his only confidant, Thomas wanted to help his brother and went online to research the condition. While researching, he noticed symptoms he identified with, which included anger, depression, anxiety and avoidance.

“I started doing some research, and the more I read the more kind of internal ‘Ah ha!’ moments I was having, and I was like, ‘Oh, wait. I recognize that in my own personality,’” he says.

Thomas saw how his brother’s condition negatively affected him. And after recognizing similarities, he sought medical evaluation for himself. To his surprise, a doctor told him he had PTSD.

He saw life through a new lens after his diagnosis. Now aware of his PTSD and the root of his negative mentality, Thomas joined a vocational rehabilitation program through the VA and rekindled relationships with his family.

“I started rebuilding my family and rebuilding relationships with my younger daughters,” Thomas says. “My wife and I were getting closer, and I noticed it was all because I was focused, and I was concentrated, and it just helped me be a better person.”

At the time, he was unsure of what to do next in life but loved snapping photos with his camera and making videos. By his wife’s suggestion, he started taking classes at North Lake College to study filmmaking and broadcasting, something that always interested him. Afterward, he formally learned photography at Richland College, where he won first place in a photo exhibition. At Richland, he took classes on how to establish and manage a nonprofit organization.

In 2016, the same year Thomas coined Photographically Touching the Soul Deeper, he earned his bachelor of fine art in photography at Texas A&M University – Commerce. He is now working on his master’s of fine arts degree in documentary filmmaking at the University of North Texas.

Although Thomas kept his mind busy, he still had PTSD. He says he will always have it.

“There’s actually no cure for it, so all you can do is learn better how to cope with it,” Thomas says. “There’s no magic pill. There’s nothing that makes it go away.”

Now 62, he uses photography as one of his strongest coping mechanisms. By confronting his condition through photography, Thomas says, he makes negative aspects of life positive.

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“Now I’m no longer being afraid of the nightmare. I’m inviting the nightmare,” he says. “Come on, nightmare, let me see what you got, maybe I can make a good photo out of you today. And that’s the way I turn negative energy into positive results.”

Thomas hopes to raise enough funds to launch Photographically Touching the Soul Deeper as a full-scale charity organization with a central location.

He says he wants to set up a gallery to showcase veterans’ work and organize group photography trips to places such as New Mexico. He also hopes the program can teach service-disabled veterans the art of film printmaking to capture and preserve candid moments in a digital age. But most importantly to Thomas, he wants veterans with PTSD to confront their condition by capturing life in a decisive moment away from fear, stress and anxiety – camaraderie through clicking cameras and developing prints.

“It’s like you plant a seed of a watermelon,” Thomas says. “If you get a watermelon back from that seed, it’s got thousands of seeds in that watermelon, and then you replant those and then you end up with a field of watermelons. That’s what my hope is, to plant into the soil of those who have suffered the way that I’ve suffered. And just hope and pray that I’ll watch them rebuild their families and take control of their lives.”

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