Overcoming PTSD, Alcohol Use, and Finding New Purpose Through WWP Connections
Dan Smee’s life has changed rapidly since returning from Iraq in 2006 after his second stint in the U.S. Army. He served in the 1980s and chose to enlist again after Sept. 11, 2001, deploying to Iraq as a medic with the 81st Brigade Combat Team, and eventually attaching to the 82nd Airborne Division.
After his experiences serving in Iraq, Dan went from an injured soldier struggling through physical pain, alcohol use, and prescription medication to earning a master’s degree in social work. He is now a case worker in the same VA facility where he was treated.
Dan’s road to recovery was long – and change didn’t happen overnight.
A Reluctant Hero Comes Home
Dan returned home from war with physical injuries and invisible wounds. He carried guilt from being part of a team that lost a platoon sergeant in a horrific IED explosion. Dan helped save warrior Dan Nevins, who was critically injured in the same explosion. But Dan Smee didn’t come back feeling he had saved anyone – he felt lost and overwhelmed by the tragedies of war.
The guilty feelings and the flashbacks of injury and death put Dan in a state of despair. He wanted to forget that night in Iraq and admits to resorting to “a bottle of Jack Daniels and prescription medication.”
But the memories of that night kept haunting him.
Dan kept reliving the feelings he had picking up body parts off a dusty road. He returned to base and heard the terrible news that Dan Nevins’ doctors would have to amputate one leg and might not be able to save the other leg. Dan started analyzing everything he did and second-guessing himself.
“I was in total disbelief,” Dan said. “I was going through all the things I did. Did I do something to cause him to injure his leg more? When I got back home a few months later, I continued to blame myself. I thought, ‘Man, Dan Nevins must hate me.’”
Hitting Rock Bottom
Although Dan Smee returned from that deployment to a hero’s welcome, he didn’t feel like a hero. He was having trouble sleeping and suffered flashbacks and nightmares.
The next few years were a rollercoaster for Dan. He turned to alcohol to ease his PTSD symptoms and couldn’t seem to get out of that cycle.
“I couldn’t sleep at night’ I was having these flashbacks,” Dan recalled. He continued blaming himself for what happened to other soldiers, especially Dan Nevins. He also experienced severe headaches from his own traumatic brain injury.
“I was trying to suck it up. I kept saying, ‘I’m fine.’ I’d have good days, and I’d have not-so-good days. And then, I just kind of spiraled out of control because I was starting to get addicted to alcohol, and I couldn’t stop. I just dug myself a hole. I had a lot of apathy, a lot of despair.
“My friends and my family members would say, ‘Hey, man, go to the VA. You need to get help.’ And I was like, ‘No, no, no. I’m fine. You don’t know what it’s like.’”
Dan’s friends and family members encouraged him to go to VA, but he continued to suffer, convincing himself he was OK. He eventually got a DUI. Then a second one.
“That second DUI was a really pivotal moment for me because I had to go to court, and it was the same judge,” Dan recalled. That judge had offered him a break the first time – if he got treatment at VA – but Dan didn’t follow through. The morning of his second court appearance, Dan left his watch and wallet at home, expecting the judge to send him to jail – which he did.
“I remember sitting in the holding tank by myself that day,” Dan said. “You know when somebody hits rock bottom? That was it for me. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as low in my life as I did at that point. I was ashamed of what my life had become. I knew that wasn’t the life I wanted to live or lead.”
Nowhere to Go but Up
Dan’s rock bottom became a turning point and a spiritual lifeline. And perhaps the universe was finding a way to get a message across: Dan had a vision of the platoon sergeant who was killed in action. “He was saying to me, ‘Hey man, we’re up here, we’re in a safe place, don’t worry about us. Live your life to the fullest, and don’t have any regrets,’” Dan said.
That experience became an epiphany for Dan. He decided to reclaim the person he knew he was deep inside.
“I told myself that I’ve got to find a way to serve in memory of the guys who are not here anymore,” Dan said. “That snapped me out of what I was going through. So, I stayed in jail for a while, but I dedicated myself to living a life that would serve and honor the memory of those I served with.”
Dan went back to VA and heard about Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP). He didn’t think WWP was for him until he saw a public service announcement with Dan Nevins. Seeing and hearing someone with whom he had a strong connection convinced Dan Smee to register online with WWP.
The Toll PTSD Takes
The National Center for PTSD says 29% of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom servicemen and women report PTSD symptoms at some point in their lives. It is estimated that more than 1 million veterans live with invisible wounds of war, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), depression, and other combat stress.
When asked about PTSD symptoms in the past month, 49% of WWP warriors reported the presence of PTSD symptoms, according to the 2022 Annual Warrior Survey.
Also on the survey, WWP warriors who indicated hazardous drinking or active alcohol disorders were more likely to have mental health quality of life scores below the median of the general U.S. population.
The relationship between mental health and substance use is complex. For some, alcohol abuse is connected to a variety of mental health issues.
PTSD can affect any person’s mental health after experiencing a traumatic event — like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual assault. Veterans have a higher risk of PTSD simply because exposure to potentially traumatic events was a part of the job.
“There may not be a ‘cure,’ but know that effective treatment is available and that you are not alone,” said Sonal Patel, WWP Talk director. “Through interactive programs like WWP Talk, clinical care, and social support, you can build the resilience you need to manage mental health challenges.”
Reconnecting Through WWP
Dan attended WWP connection events and joined a WWP peer support group. A couple of years later, Dan had the chance to reconnect with Dan Nevins at WWP's 2010 Courage Awards and Benefits Dinner. The annual event recognizes the service and dedication of those who make the WWP mission possible.
“The crowd was just on the edge of their seats listening to him,” Dan Smee said. “And he goes, ‘I just want to take a moment. My medic, who was with me in the military and who saved my life, is sitting there. Dan, stand up.’”
This simple act of kindness empowered Dan to continue progressing in his healing journey. He started to see life through a different lens. He extended to himself the same compassion that Dan Nevins had shown him.
“I took on a new mission and life of service to my fellow warriors, and I haven’t looked back since,” Dan said.
Engaging with other warriors helped Dan in his recovery and gave him new purpose. He went back to school to finish a bachelor’s degree and continued to a master’s degree in social work.
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“Now I get to help other returning combat veterans like me,” Dan said. “All this was a journey. So, when I finally got hired at the VA, and I go to my office, it’s the office next to where I first met with a VA social worker. I kind of came full circle.”
Dan says meeting up with Dan Nevins again “was like the final thing that really put me back together.” If there was a missing piece to Dan Smee’s recovery puzzle, Dan Nevins was it.
“Just seeing him and being happy for him for doing all the great things he’s doing, that just gives me energy, motivation, and encouragement to do the same,” Dan said.
While Dan’s life changed in ways he couldn’t imagine, the connections he has made – and the life he now leads – have helped others change in positive ways.
“I could never envision what my life would be like without Wounded Warrior Project.”
Connect with other veterans and start your healing journey.
Contact: Raquel Rivas – Public Relations, firstname.lastname@example.org, 904.426.9783
About Wounded Warrior Project
Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers — helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more.