Sometimes a battle raging inside a person can help drive them to achieve incredible things, even while they’re losing the battle.
For a long time, this was true for Lt. Duane Zitta, a talented ultra-endurance athlete and Coast Guard member now stationed at Sector Anchorage, on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.
He was recently confirmed as the first U.S. military member to complete the Chugach Front Linkup challenge. Zitta and his climbing partner Isaac Swanson of Anchorage reached the top of the 12 tallest Chugach Front Range summits in one continuous push, completing the feat in 23 hours, June 30, 2021. Each of these peaks tower over Anchorage, more than 5,000 feet above sea level. The duo covered more than 39 miles and gained over 19,000 feet in elevation. Less than 50 confirmed climbers have ever completed the challenge.
“The Chugach Front Linkup requires that nobody support you or your fellow climber along the way,” said Zitta. “There were no food or water caches. We were on our own. Aside from the somewhat-established trails in and out, there are no trails connecting the peaks. This is something that takes lots of planning and preparation -- especially choosing the route ahead of time. We carried packs with food, minimal clothing, and a satellite messenger device in case of emergency. The device would provide search and rescue agencies with our location if necessary, but also allowed our families to track our progress by transmitting our position in real time.”
Zitta’s extensive accomplishments in ultra-endurance sports have included top finishes in marathons and other long-distance runs and swims. He completed the fastest known time of a 42-mile trek called “Sea to Stars,” from the Pacific Ocean to the peak of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea. In 2019 he finished the Ironman World Championship triathlon in Kailua-Kona, and was recognized as Coast Guard Elite Male Athlete of the Year.
In addition to his aptitude for remarkable athletic achievements, Zitta is equally well known for his off-duty, volunteer, fund-raising efforts for the Coast Guard Foundation. He’s brought in more than $30,000 in charitable donations for the organization through his endurance accomplishments.
But only a few close to Zitta realize what first fueled his zest to compete in endurance sports nearly shattered his life before he sought help.
Now the intelligence branch chief at Sector Anchorage, Zitta spent the first 10 years of his Coast Guard career performing extremely high-tempo operational jobs. After enlisting, Zitta was sent to Cutter Douglas Munro where he was both a boarding team and helicopter tie-down team member during counter narcotics operations in the Pacific. He was immediately enticed by the helicopter missions. Gunners in the helicopters would shoot out the engines of fleeing boats suspected of running narcotics. Zitta and the rest of Munro’s crew then helped confiscate drugs and detain traffickers. Zitta knew he wanted to fly in and work on helicopters, and he decided to become an avionics electrical technician.
After training school, Zitta was sent to Air Station Detroit where he spent the next six years as a flight mechanic, performing search and rescue missions on the Great Lakes.
“Summers there were extremely busy with search and rescue,” said Zitta. “I stood a 24-hour duty every three or four days, for about six years straight. It was a given that whenever you stood duty during the summer, you were getting called out on a search-and-rescue case. As anyone who’s ever performed a search-and-rescue job can tell you, many of those cases don’t have a happy ending.”
While stationed in Detroit, Zitta was sent on a helicopter deployment aboard Cutter Forward, to conduct a counter narcotics patrol in the Caribbean. While on that deployment, Zitta was sent to the chaotic response in Haiti after the devastating earthquake in 2010. He arrived in the first Coast Guard helicopter to land in Port-au-Prince. He was reluctant to provide details—Zitta said the magnitude of human suffering he encountered in Haiti was indescribable.
“We were sent by the Coast Guard to help in any way we could,” he said. “But nobody knew what we would encounter there. The Coast Guard motto may be ‘Semper Paratus, Always Ready,’ but we were not ready to respond to the level of devastation caused by that earthquake.”
After the deployment, Zitta returned to Detroit, where he learned he had been selected to become a gunner in the Coast Guard’s Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron. He excelled during training school, and later while performing counter narcotics operations as a gunner for a full year. At the end of that year, he was accepted to officer candidate school. He became an officer, trained at the Navy Dive School, and went on to lead the Coast Guard Dive Locker in Portsmouth, Virginia.
“Around the time I became an officer, I started to seek out and excel in endurance sports, and to try out longer endurance events,” said Zitta. “I’ve always been competitive, and I have the natural ability and drive to suffer through long endurance activities. But I was gradually becoming aware that I needed, I craved, more physical exertion. It seemed like the more I challenged myself physically, the better I felt. It was the endorphins and the dopamine offsetting what I later recognized was an imbalance taking place inside me. I had something very significant and complex going on inside myself that I wasn’t fully aware of. It was emotional, it was physical and it was mental. I was not able to explain it to anybody. I just knew that the training was helping me feel somewhat balanced.”
Zitta said despite his continued success at work and in his athletic life, he was tormented by this internal turmoil that was becoming more and more detrimental to his personal relationships-especially with his wife. He experienced frequent, vivid nightmares. The nightmares eventually subsided, but only because Zitta was not able to sleep at all.
His insomnia went on for years. He no longer enjoyed things. He felt socially awkward. He felt numb and nearly emotionless.
But he continued with his training.
“The outlet endurance sports provided me did help me, but did not fix these problems going on inside of me,” he said. “I was running from something. I later learned that my suffering was due to constantly being in a state of trauma response. From things that had compounded throughout my life and Coast Guard career, somewhere along the line there was a point where my capacity, my ability to process the things that I have seen and what I have experienced, was at its maximum. Without using the proper outlet and tools to process those things throughout my career, my body and mind were at a point where I’d had enough. In the inside and on the outside, it was an ugly, trying time in my life. I was struggling to understand what was happening with me—why I could not do things I used to, and why was I not comfortable in social scenarios and in group settings.”
The breaking point for Zitta came when his wife Michelle told him one day, that he was no longer the man she married. That she did not know who he was anymore. It was that day he reached out for help for the first time. He called CG Support.
“Thankfully, because of my wife, and through some really good friends and mentors in the Coast Guard and in my family, I was able to finally start talking to people and to start sorting through and figure out what was happening with me,” said Zitta. “I was diagnosed with service-related post-traumatic stress disorder. Though I don’t like the term “PTSD” because of all the stigma associated with it, I can tell you it is real, and it is detrimental to people’s lives who don’t deal with it and get the help they need. I’m the type of person who likes to power though stuff. I thought I had the ability to get through everything and not need help. I did not know that it’s okay to not be okay.”
Zitta said he did not begin to struggle until years after his search and rescue and gunner experiences. When he transitioned from the high-tempo, operational jobs to the slower-paced, shift and desk work as an officer, his problems began to surface.
“I learned that when a person is in a trauma response, your body and your brain turn off all of the things that you don’t absolutely need,” said Zitta. “Emotional connections, gratification after a major accomplishment, being happy in general, are all shed, because your body is trying to protect itself and do the bare minimum to get through the day. That’s what my life was like for almost a decade, without me fully recognizing or understanding it. I was in a constant state of trauma response for almost ten years.”
Zitta emphasized that PTSD has many causes.
“People might think that PTSD is something that is only caused by physical trauma like battle, extreme survival situations, or seeing someone die,” he said. Toxic work environments and harassment in an office setting or elsewhere can cause PTSD. It’s not something limited to military members.”
Zitta’s PTSD initially enhanced his compulsion for more and more extreme ultra-endurance training, but he now enjoys training and competing while also addressing his mental health by talking to a professional. He now enjoys success in endurance sports thanks to a healthy passion and competitive drive, that is compatible with his family and work life.
“My mental health has become part of my new endurance quest. Getting better takes time and effort. For me it has taken years. But I finally realized that if I was not willing to take the time to heal myself and take care of myself as a human being, there was no way for me to be a good husband or a good father.”
Zitta said he waited too long to get help. He doesn’t want others to make the same mistake.
“I just want people to know that it’s okay to not be okay. That reaching out for help is a sign of strength. But I also want people to know that healing is not something that happens right away, and a full recovery isn’t realistic. Those suffering from PTSD will never be who they were before the trauma. We are forever changed by it. But working to heal is worth it. It’s something that takes time and work, but vastly improves the quality of your life. Suffering in silence is no way to live.”
Zitta is now actively engaged as a member of Coast Guard Sector Anchorage’s patient advocate board. The board is made up of a handful of officers and chiefs who are available to discuss concerns of members who encounter challenges while navigating the complexities of the military healthcare system.
“When I first reached out for help, I became discouraged by some of the hurdles I faced,” said Zitta. “It’s important for people reaching out for help to know that the military health care system can be challenging to navigate. Not everyone you talk to will be helpful. But staying positive and pushing through the challenges and pitfalls is worth it. Working with your chain of command to identify flaws in the system can help make it stronger.”
“Since beginning treatment here in Alaska, I have seen him smile and laugh more than I have in years,” said Zitta’s wife Michelle. “He seems to be more present with our family and I've felt like we are becoming more connected again. My advice to a spouse, friend or loved one of someone suffering from PTSD who is reluctant to seek help is to be patient and encouraging. I've learned through the years that you can't force someone to change—they have to be willing to make the change for themselves. In the meantime, research PTSD to try to understand what they are going through. Don't give up, be there if they want to share, but don't push. I would be lying if I said this was easy. There have been times that I've been angry, sad and confused—times I wish he could just shut it off and I could have the man I met back again. After years of trying to get proper treatment, I'm finally seeing results.”
“Lt. Zitta has displayed exceptional courage as he's chosen to share his wellness journey with others,” said Capt. Leanne Lusk, commander, Sector Anchorage. "I'm grateful for his willingness to show vulnerability and his continued advocacy and encouragement of others. While seeking mental health counseling has carried a negative stigma, we must get to a place where health-seeking behaviors are encouraged and fully supported throughout the Coast Guard. Ideally, we will get to a place where these concerns are viewed no differently than other medical challenges.”
On a recent run down a dirt road in the woods, Zitta encountered a large black bear walking down the middle of the road. The bear refused to move and was not afraid of him.
“This bear wouldn’t go away. He just stood in the road and looked at me,” he said.
A car came along and the driver agreed to slow down and block Zitta from the bear as he ran alongside.
“They offered to just give me a ride, but I wasn’t about to get in the car. That’s not really my style,” Zitta joked. “But I was happy to accept their help.”
For more information about PTSD, including treatment options and how to seek help, visit the VA’s National Center for PTSD website.
Whether or not a member suffers from PTSD, the Coast Guard’s Employee Assistance Program, called “CG SUPRT,” offers non-medical counseling to help with anxiety, stress, grief, marriage and parenting concerns. Also available is health coaching, financial coaching, legal guidance and more. The services are free for active-duty members, reservists, full-time civil service employees, and their dependents. Call 855-CGSUPRT (247-8778) or visit this website.