With his thumb dangling from his hand and blood squirting from his forearm, Cory McCarthy put his own life-threatening injury aside and responded to his fellow soldiers’ calls for help.
It was 2003 in northern Iraq. An improvised explosive device had just sent shrapnel through his body, and the clock was ticking on how much time McCarthy had to stop the bleeding.
McCarthy composed himself and asked the others to make a tourniquet for him. He immediately turned away to help another soldier whose hip had been wounded by a piece of shrapnel several inches long.
After caring for his fellow soldier, McCarthy went into shock.
“I’d lost a lot of blood at that point and I kind of felt myself just getting really weak,” he said. “If I didn’t get to a certain place in a certain time, there was a good possibility that I could die or I could lose my arm.”
McCarthy, 31, served as a U.S. Army medic in northern Iraq until that fateful day. Now he is one of more than 360 student veterans at Washington State University’s Pullman campus. For many veterans, going back to school is the key to survival in the civilian world, but adjusting to college can be an overwhelming challenge after witnessing the horrors of the battlefield.
Many veterans struggle to adapt to the rigors of higher education, said Lt. Col. Craig Whiteside, a retired Army officer who instructs a class at WSU that helps veterans deal with the challenges of coming back to school.
“The veterans that come back here are just special people,” Whiteside said. “I have a lot of appreciation for them. … Most of them are very disciplined. They’re going to classes. They’re going to pay attention to their professors.”
Despite that discipline, veterans often find themselves easily agitated or frustrated in the transition from soldier to student. But most eventually find a way to adapt to their new environment, Whiteside said.
McCarthy found solace in the distractions of the academic environment. School can take him away from haunting memories of the war and the health problems that continue to plague each day of his life. For McCarthy, the decision to go back to school was just as much about being in a place where he could feel comfortable again.
On that day in August 2003, McCarthy joined a group of soldiers on a routine intelligence mission to search for one of the top 50 most-wanted members of Saddam Hussein’s regime in a village outside Al Hawija, about 50 miles north of Baghdad. But before they could reach their destination, the soldiers drove over an IED, and McCarthy took the brunt of the explosion.
The blast sent a piece of shrapnel straight through McCarthy’s right forearm, severing his radial artery and nearly slicing off his right thumb.
“The day I ended up getting hit, I kind of knew that I was going to get hit,” he said. “Seconds before it went off, I was like, ‘All right, here it comes.’ ”
Before leaving the base that day, McCarthy had told the rest of his platoon what to do if he should suffer a serious injury. But when his premonition became a reality, McCarthy found himself in his usual position of attending to the others – despite his own injuries.
“I tried assessing what my … gunner had, seeing what his injuries were and walking the other guys through how to treat him before I even worked on treating myself,” he said.
Following the incident, McCarthy spent a year recuperating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Surgeons salvaged his arm and hand by transferring a section of tissue several inches long from his hip to the wounded area.
McCarthy underwent a series of skin and bone grafts, tendon and ligament repairs, and the installation of plates and screws in his hand.
“I still have extensor tendons that aren’t attached to my thumb,” he said. “The tendons were just too frayed.”
Now, McCarthy – who used to play saxophone and bass before the injury – can only move his right thumb roughly a centimeter from side to side. His hand and forearm still have impaired sensation.
In the healing process, McCarthy waited months for his doctors to decide whether his disability was too severe for him to continue in the service.
“If it wasn’t for Walter Reed, I would’ve re-enlisted,” he said. “I sat there waiting, I think, for four or five months to find out whether or not my doctors were going to say if I could stay in or be medically retired.”
McCarthy had enlisted in the Army in 2001 with the hope of getting the kind of medical experience that he could use in a career as a firefighter. But his wounds put that dream to rest.
Home and into school
After leaving the military in 2004, McCarthy earned a bachelor’s degree in history from University of California, Davis in 2008 with the intention of becoming a history teacher.
He got married. He landed a job with the Department of Defense.
But the complications of post-traumatic stress disorder began to impede McCarthy’s professional life.
“I was constantly having anxiety attacks, going to the bathroom or having to go outside just to calm down,” he said. “It ended up interfering with my work. I’d get behind.”
Eventually, McCarthy’s struggle with PTSD cost him his job. He struggled for months to find a job and even longer to find a doctor who would prescribe him the right medication.
“It took me three years before I found a psychiatrist that actually prescribed a medication for my anxiety,” he said. “It was ridiculous, and it shouldn’t have to take that long.”
The PTSD has become more manageable since, McCarthy said, but it’s still a constant struggle.
“It’s hard for me to sleep,” he said. “… As soon as I doze off, I wake myself up. It takes me most of the night to finally get to sleep, and I’ll go three or four nights without going to sleep.”
Having little success in the job market after leaving the Department of Defense, McCarthy decided to enroll at WSU, where he could be close to family in Pullman. He plans to pursue an advanced degree in archaeology after he graduates in the spring with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology.
In addition to the lingering pain in his hand and arm and the slipped discs in his spine from the explosion, McCarthy suffers from polycystic kidney disease and tuberous sclerosis, a rare genetic condition that can create nonmalignant tumors throughout the body. Recently, he found out there is a growth in his brain.
The day McCarthy heard the news from his doctor, his wife recommended he stay home from school. But to McCarthy, there was no better place to be.
“I was like, ‘No, I need to go to school,’ ” he said. “It just calms me down. It’s a different type of stress, but it’s one that I feel comfortable with.”