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Fighting more than fires: Wildfire survivor to detail struggles

30th Annual Jim Bradshaw Memorial

Stars in Recovery Luncheon

May 1, 11:30 a.m.

Omni Fort Worth Hotel

1300 Houston St., Fort Worth

Proceeds go toward substance abuse outreach, intervention and prevention in North Texas.

Brendan McDonough has an incredible story to tell as the lone survivor of the elite Granite Mountain Hotshots firefighting crew that battled the Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013. That tale has been documented in the national media, several books, documentaries and the 2017 big screen movie Only the Brave, which starred Josh Brolin, Jeff Bridges and Jennifer Connolly.

But that isn’t McDonough’s only harrowing tale of survival. He has also defeated substance abuse, as he will discuss in his speech May 1 during the 30th Annual Jim Bradshaw Memorial Stars in Recovery Luncheon. The event features celebrities speaking publicly about their victories over alcoholism, substance abuse and addiction.

“At a time when opioid use has become a national crisis, Brendan’s story is inspiring and reminds us that even heroes sometimes struggle and need a helping hand to overcome substance abuse,” said Recovery Resource Council CEO Eric Niedermayer.

The Yarnell Hill Fire, near Yarnell, Arizona, was ignited by lightning on June 28, 2013. On June 30, it raged out of control and killed 19 City of Prescott firefighters who were members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Crew member McDonough was stationed as a lookout at the time. His account of his life story and the fire was published in 2016 as My Lost Brothers and reprinted in 2017 as Granite Mountain.

McDonough, 26, took some time to answer a few questions from the Fort Worth Business Press:

What drove you to addiction? Was it going through the 2013 incident?

I smoked marijuana for the first time when I was 12, then started using it regularly by the time I was 14. It was peer pressure and the wanting to fit in as well and having a difficult childhood I really wanted to escape. As I grew older the variety of things I was using to escape grew from pot to alcohol as well, in high school lots of drinking and partying and then to the party drugs like cocaine and ecstasy. I didn’t encounter heroin until after high school.

After high school, I wanted to become a firefighter so I tried to cut back, but it really had a grip on me. After my first year of college and flunking my second semester I was on a downward spiral. I started using heroin because it was cheaper than pain pills, and a few months later I was arrested and spent a few days in jail. It wasn’t for drug-related charges, it was a felony charge of trafficking a stolen item, but if I completed probation it would be dropped down to a misdemeanor. This was January of 2011.

I was motivated to get better but still addicted, so I enrolled in an EMT class to try and turn my life around, continued to use drugs and somehow didn’t get caught. My daughter was born March 2, 2011, and about two weeks after she was born I went on a reckless drug-filled binge. Once I kind of came to, I desperately wanted to change so I continued my EMT class and ended up applying for a position on the Hotshots, and that’s when I kicked all the drugs.

After my [Hotshot crew] brothers passed away, alcohol went from being something I didn’t have an issue with to becoming a major problem. I drank for a handful of years, justifying it because I wasn’t driving drunk and wasn’t arrested for anything, but it was causing issues for me in my family life and wasn’t healthy for my mental state.

I was suicidal for quite a while after they passed away, at least a year and half afterward I felt like it was an option until I started going to counseling. I was a binge drinker so I would only drink once or twice a month, but when I did it was bad. So on St Patrick’s Day 2017 I said to myself I need to quit, I can’t continue to do this to myself and the ones I love.

How did you win the battle and what was the hardest part?

My first round with my addiction was won because of the support of the fire service and wanting to be the father that I never had, which was a present one. Once I was hired, I quit cold turkey and never looked back to drugs. The feeling of serving others and being a father outweighed the want to use because I felt a part of something that was helping others and had achieved my childhood goal of being in the fire service.

My second round of addiction, with alcohol, took some time because it was justifiable, it was legal and accepted, and I wasn’t drinking every day or even every week so in a messed-up way I was justifying it. Alcohol was all I had to cope with, and so it was the only escape. I knew that giving it up meant truly dealing with my PTS and what came with it, the depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and more.

Is there a daily challenge being an addict, and what advice do you have for others working to stay sober?

I believe everyone’s walk is different, but I do believe in some sort of way there is a daily challenge, and some may be hour-by-hour or even minute-by-minute. Sober time adds up, and as it does you become the person you want to be and truly understand what happiness is about and what good coping skills look like.

The best advice I can give is stay accountable, remember why you started the journey of sobriety, and know that you’re worth it. I personally have leaned into my faith more than ever, and it has been the biggest factor in my recovery.

Can you tell me about your family?

My family is everything to me. They’re my biggest supporters and have continued to be my inspiration day after day. My fiancée and I started dating after the tragedy and she has a little girl with autism that has captured my heart with her love and joy. I am truly blessed to have her in my life. My eldest daughter and I have such an amazing bond. We just recently attended a father-daughter dance, and it was something I will never forget. It’s moments like those I remember why I am clean and why I found healthy ways to deal with my trauma.

Are you still involved in firefighting in any way?

I am no longer fighting fires, but I am involved with the Wildland Firefighter Foundation that helps firefighters and their families that have been injured or killed in the line of duty. They do amazing work and have been a huge part of my healing, and it just feels right to help spread the word of what great work they do.

I also have become an advocate for mental health awareness for not just firefighters but all men and women who serve our country. They give so much, and with the suicide rates continuing to rise we need to give them the help they deserve and earned.

What are your thoughts on the book and movie about the Yarnell wildfire experience?

I really enjoyed writing Granite Mountain. It was a huge part of my healing process in a lot of ways. I was able to share my story and my scars all in hopes of inspiring others. Most importantly, it was a way to carry on my brothers’ legacy by showing the reader how much they helped me and what they meant to me.

The movie was another part of the healing process for me. It allowed me to tell my brothers’ story and relive some truly amazing memories that we had together. The producers, actors and everyone involved did such an amazing job of holding integrity and respect above all when they made this film. It wasn’t emotionally easy, but how my brothers lived and their sacrifice needed to be shared. It shed an amazing light on a community that doesn’t get much attention.

What lies ahead for you?

For a long time I have asked that same question. I am excited to say that I will be launching Holdfast Recovery this summer, with a focus on drug and alcohol addiction. I have taken my personal experience along with professionally proven treatment and created a program that will help those suffering from addiction be set free. Addiction is an epidemic in our country and I hope to make a difference.

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