Mark Combs is among a community of West Virginians who have decided that -- despite a deep love for Appalachia -- they have no choice but to leave the region. His “Struggle to Stay” actually made staying impossible.
Closing Night at the Theater
In the summer of 2016, Mark was cast in a professional production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in Morgantown, West Virginia. He was fresh out of college with a degree in fine arts. This was his first professional gig as an actor, and it would be his last performance in his home state of West Virginia. On closing night a few hours before the show, he probably should have been nervous or maybe on top of the world.
But that’s not how Mark’s story worked out.
“I lost one of my best friends last night to suicide,” Mark said, staring blankly at the floor. “He was in the United States Army, in the infantry like I was.”
The loss of his friend Tyler Burroughs is especially tragic because Mark, who is no stranger to suicidal thoughts, dedicated the past year of his life to raising awareness about the ongoing epidemic of veteran suicide in the United States. He even hosted and co-produced a West Virginia Public Broadcasting television special called Still Taking Casualties.
“It’s the first friend I’ve lost in a while, probably about 10 months,” he said. “It never gets any easier.”
Mark grew up bouncing around geographically between southern West Virginia, and North and South Carolina. He lost his parents early. He joined the service, following in his grandfather’s.
But 15 months in Iraq left him with several traumatic brain injuries. These came because of exposure to blasts from improvised explosive devices (IEDs). He was discharged in 2009 because of his injuries and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Part of that disorder means he copes with recurring nightmares about being back in the war.
“In the beginning [nightmares were] nothing but firefights and rocket attacks and mortar attacks and seeing IEDs blow up my friends. And IEDs hitting me. But they progressed.”
Mark’s brain would focus on the aspects of taking another human being’s life.
“That was one thing that I was known for -- everybody in the battalion knew who I was because I did that. And I did it more than anybody else. My dreams became just having to watch those people die over and over and over again. And that’s pretty much what it is even to this day,” he said.
Mark discovered a powerful new coping mechanism during his college career that changed the course of his life, and was a driving force behind his “Struggle to Stay.”
“Honestly, theater saved my life,” he said. “I hadn’t been passionate about anything since being out of the army. But I finally found something that I love to do. It was very therapeutic to get to do the things you get to do on stage. It’s this beautiful art form. It pulled me out from under a rock.”
After the final performance of Romeo and Juliet, while his cast mates met in the lobby celebrating their final show, Mark sat down in the now-empty theater.
“It may have been the most difficult performance I’ve ever done,” he said, choking back tears. “There’s a couple times I stepped into the wings and just kinda cried. I know that if my buddy Tyler was here he would have been consoling me but he also would have been - ‘Go do what you gotta do.’ That’s basically what I could hear in my head the whole night. ‘Go do what you gotta do.’ ”
California or Bust
Mark had a funeral to go to; then he was headed to California, and not looking back. After a few years of weighing his options, he decided West Virginia’s economy wasn't healthy enough to allow him to survive and thrive employed in performing arts.
“I couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” he said. “If I have to work a job at a bar or anything like that to help support or get me from one job in the theater to the next -- yeah I’ll do that. But I can’t imagine pursuing any other career. Ever.”
Many of his theater friends moved to either New York, Chicago or Los Angeles to chase their theatrical dreams. Mark wanted to escape cold winters, so he decided it was California or bust.
“West Virginia’s a really depressing place when you really get to think about it. Especially if you’re a young person who’s looking to start a career."
Mark partially blames political leaders for not creating more economic opportunities for young creative people.
“The more you see in the news, it’s like they’re trying to make it worse,” Mark said, exasperated.
“State government passes these bills like they don’t care about us. They care about coal and oil and gas, which are just robbing us blind and destroying the environment. Just seems to me that they don’t care about younger generations or generations to come.”
“I’d love to be able to stay here,” he added. “I do love this state and the people are great. But it’s just dying. If you want to succeed, you’ve gotta leave.”
*Music in this story was composed for and performed live at Romeo and Juliet, a performance of West Virginia Public Theatre, by Dylan Moses McGonigle.
Leaving Takes Courage
A few nights before leaving, he’s is all packed, his apartment is stripped. Even Mark, a battle-hardened veteran, was a little scared before leaping westward, largely into the unknown.
“There’s a definite feeling of fear that I’m leaving my home and things I’m used to. But there’s really nothing for me here. I don’t know what will happen in CA, but I know what will happen if I stay here. One is definitely more terrifying than the other.”
“Three days from now I’ll be halfway across the country.”
Mark set out with a car full of California dreams and expectations that were, well, destined to be smashed to pieces. And quickly.
Does he make it to California? That’s next time on The Struggle to Stay.