Story & Photos by Hannah Neumann
Sean Donnelly deployed to Afghanistan in 2012 as a sergeant and team leader in the Army, conducting over 100 missions in his first eight months at war. On one of these missions, Donnelly’s vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device, or IED. The goal of this mission in particular was to conduct a route clearance down to a village in Kandahar, a city in Afghanistan. The order was to follow a path known to be lined with IEDs and disable them. They found nine, and after a batch of misinformation led them to believe the route had been cleared, their vehicle hit a 10th and set off a 60-pound IED. The blast hit Donelly’s squad leader, knocked out his driver and ultimately disabled the vehicle, blowing off all four tires on the left side. This would be the first of four times Donnelly would come into direct, unexpected contact with an IED in Afghanistan, and the first of many instances that would send him home wounded, beyond repair of a typical hospital stay.
After coming home, Donnelly dove into research on post-traumatic stress disorder as a science major, to help himself better understand what was going on in his mind post-war. Donnelly said PTSD is a lot of different things. Aside from triggers that set people off, hypervigilance is an ever-present factor.
“Someone will have heightened awareness of their surroundings and of people around them, which puts them on edge, because you know, you’re in a country for eight months with a fear in mind,” Donnelly said. “It is a fear that something will or may not happen, and so you’re always on guard. Sometimes it’s even worse for those who don’t really experience anything because they still have that underlying fear that something could happen.”
Donnelly said another battle after the homecoming is the loss of trust and closeness with people that once may have filled that role and no longer seem capable of doing so, not through any fault of their own.
“You go to battle with these guys and you trust them with your life,” Donnelly said. “When you come home, it’s hard to trust even the closest people to you –– your family, friends, it doesn’t matter. You’re still going to isolate yourself.”
Donnelly said isolation is one of the many things that PTSD drives soldiers into after war.
“PTSD is a combination of all these things. It’s isolating yourself from other people, over-aggression for simple things. You know instead of yelling at someone in the car I used to point my finger like it was a gun,” Donnelly said. “That’s the mindset that you had, and you still have that at times. To get more physiological, your sympathetic nervous system is in overload when you’re overseas. You have adrenaline and all these factors that just contribute to the post-traumatic stress after.”
Donnelly said this adrenaline experienced in war is something that lives on after and contributes to the hypervigilant nature of someone battling PTSD. He said even a simple noise or pop, or simply standing in a crowd, can send his mind and body into overdrive. In instances like this, Donnelly said some people with PTSD even experience digestive problems because their blood is going to extremities to prepare them for a fight.
“You lose focus sometimes,” he said. “That’s a biochemical combination of just feeling like crap, like your equilibrium is off, because you’re so used to being at such a heightened state that it’s hard to come down from that, and it takes a long, long time or some help.”
Because a heightened level of fear, most often unprovoked, is a common symptom, people battling PTSD often experience panic attacks. While these are usually unprovoked, they can also occur when a person is reminded of their trauma in some way. Donnelly had his first attack in a college classroom shortly after returning home. Outside of the classroom, the attacks and hypervigilance persisted.
“You go out to a bar or a sporting event and you just can’t stop looking at anybody and everybody that’s left of you, right of you, behind you, in front of you,” Donnelly said. “Of course people are aware of other people, but I’m not just looking at other people. I’m looking at somebody potentially going to harm me, I’m looking for a threat, and you know most people don’t look for threats on a 24-hour basis.”
DeLisa Russell, Director of the Veterans One Stop in Waco, explained that while this heightened awareness may cause difficulty now, it may have been just the thing that kept these men alive overseas.
“Being aware of your surroundings—different sounds, smells and situations—that hypervigilance is often a survival skill while you’re deployed,” she said. “The problem is, when you come back to normal life, you don’t necessarily need that same hypervigilance. Say you’re deployed and you are used to getting up and patrolling your area every two or three hours to make sure there’s not an enemy threat. That would keep you alive while you were deployed out there in a conflict situation, but that’s not something you need to do back on campus at Baylor.
Russell said it can be hard for veterans to let go of something that was a useful tool in keeping them alive back at war, even though they no longer need it.
Donnelly said recognizing and admitting to having a problem is the first step in the healing process and is often something incredibly difficult for soldiers, and men in general, to do.
“It was eight months after being diagnosed and I was bawling after, thinking, ‘Wow, I really do have a problem,’” Donnelly said. “That’s the first step, just getting help, because guys won’t often do that. I know so many that just won’t do it.”
Russell said this is common with veterans who are battling PTSD or moral injury after war. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs explains moral injury as shame, guilt, anxiety and/or self-condemnation that results from actions taken in combat, or things witnessed, that violated their morals. While many avoid seeking help for fear of judgment or appearing weak, Russell said survivor’s guilt can also play a role.
“It’s not even always afraid of being seen as weak, but they think, ‘I had a buddy that didn’t even live and I’m falling apart, but I’m here and alive and I should be able to man up and handle this,’” she said. “A lot of times there’s guilt and shame that come with those feelings of weakness. They feel they should be able to heal on their own. With veterans it’s interesting. They’re often the last to ask for help, but the first to show up when they feel like their brothers or sisters need help.”
While Donnelly is a big proponent of natural approaches to healing, he’s also found success with medication.
“Medication does help a lot because like for myself, a certain symptom I had, as soon as I went on a certain drug that was specific for that, I felt 10 times better instantly,” He said. “I was able to focus for six or seven hours and study material, versus before when I was really stressed or anxious and all these other things combined, I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t even be outside for more than an hour and sitting in class was painful.”
Donnelly said through his studies of PTSD, he turned to medication to help set things right, and after his own success, recommended the same medication to two friends who also served.
“They had the same experiences, same thoughts, same feelings… and that main feeling was that you felt so off in your head, you felt so foggy, is the best way to say it, that you felt like something was wrong with you,” Donnelly said. “I felt like I had some kind of disease or something bigger than what it was, and that’s horrible. You feel horrible every day and that sucks.”
Donnelly said that for an issue with as many symptoms and complexities as PTSD, it is important to dissect, evaluate and approach healing each one separately. He said because everyone’s battle with PTSD is different, and symptoms can vary, it’s important to tackle each specific area of concern, rather looking for an overarching solution.
Donnelly tried different forms of therapy but found Prolonged Exposure, or PE, to be the most impactful. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, this is a trauma-focused psychotherapy, that has the most evidence for treating PTSD. This type of therapy aims to help lessen the impact of PTSD symptoms by confronting painful memories and feelings that someone would normally avoid after a traumatic experience, which helps them to regain control over their lives.
“Prolonged exposure was the best form, because it really dived into the story and the trauma itself, and the main goal was to relive that day,” Donnelly said. “I would record myself for 30 or 40 minutes… and just for the first six sessions I would start from the beginning and then each time I would remember something more, and I would basically have homework assignments where I would have to go to a bar and sit with my back to people, or sit on a train facing the opposite direction of traffic… go to a baseball game or a football game with crowds of people… you know, go out with your friends, just do something that you would normally love to do, but that PTSD has taken you away from.”
Through therapy, medication and other self-help behaviors, Donnelly has been successful in confronting his PTSD head-on and taking his life back.
“I control my PTSD now,” he said. “I control it with medication and with exercise. Each and every day I still feel tense or unable to relax, but that hypervigilance is not as extreme as it used to be. I can talk and have a conversation, and there’s no more social anxiety. The focus is there now. Exercise helps, I do some breathing stuff here and there. I haven’t quite figured out the final fix, but that’s also hard to do when so many things are going on.”
While Donnelly has learned to control many symptoms of his PTSD, he still lives with regret and frustration from his time in the Army. Arguably, one of the dominating factors that serves to ease the hardened minds and justify the harrowing memories of those who went to war is the comfort of knowing they served their country with a purpose. For Donnelly this isn’t the case. He still lives with the question, “What was it all for?”
“One of my friends died when I was overseas, and I can’t answer the question of ‘Why did he die for this country?’ ‘What was his purpose overseas?’ ‘Was he doing some greater good?’ ‘Was I doing some greater good for my country?’ And my answer every time is hell no,” Donnelly said. “I could honestly say that I went overseas to Afghanistan and I did absolutely nothing. We did all these missions, but what higher purpose did it serve for this nation? Absolutely nothing. So that’s hard to live with. Having these things happen for no reason.”
It’s no secret that war is ugly and devastating, but for Donnelly, it’s more than that. It’s something he can’t always understand or justify, and that’s hard to live with. Forced to relive the horrors of war day to day, it’s no wonder so many soldiers return home broken and bruised, and even sometimes beyond repair. Haunted by the memories, Donnelly often finds himself unable to sleep.
“We had a lot of kids over there. I pulled my gun on a kid and I still think about that a lot today,” Donnelly said. “We were in our vehicles traveling through a village that didn’t like us very much, so they would throw rocks at us, and so I was in the back of the vehicle with my M4 and this kid came running up full speed, and was about to throw something. I flipped my switch to fire and pointed it right at him and he stopped luckily, and that was the end of that. But, it was the fact that I was able to and willing to take this kid’s life that doesn’t sit well with me sometimes.”
He said that while the kids were just as big a threat as anyone else, and that it would be dangerous to be complacent and allow for any danger to slip through the cracks, he still feels changed by those choices he was forced to make. He said those experiences added to the list of things he had to battle within himself when he came home.
“Coming home you’re not empathetic. You’re unsympathetic about everything; you’re emotionless,” Donnelly said. “That was one of the things I dealt with. That kind of comes from you being willing to take a life, because that’s your job.”
While a part of him is stuck in the horrors of his past, Donnelly is now pre-med at Baylor with his eyes set on the future, which for him involves acceptance to med-school. With a prominent symptom of PTSD being the possession of increased negative thoughts and feelings, many who battle the illness see a dark future, if they can envision a future at all. For Donnelly, the future is his source of happiness and hope.
“It always comes back here and there where you feel like you don’t have a purpose, or even when you’re on a track, thinking what is the purpose and what is my purpose in life,” Donnelly said. “Back here it’s like, now what? You know overseas, I just had to survive that, I just had to get home, so it takes a while, but to move forward you first just have to establish a goal, short-term and long-term goals are always good. I focus on what I’m doing now, and I’m still planning for the future. I’ve felt so much better being on the track that I’m on and trying to go to med-school. It finally feels right for me, and that’s very hopeful.”