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Veteran Cultivates Creativity to Address PTSD Symptoms

Air Force veteran Tim McDonough finds creative outlets like caring for bonsai trees and cooking help alleviate his PTSD symptoms.
Air Force veteran Tim McDonough finds creative outlets, like caring for bonsai trees and cooking, help alleviate his PTSD symptoms.

When Air Force veteran Tim McDonough grabs his special bonsai tree scissors, his mind zeros in on the little branches of the plant he’s about to trim. In the kitchen, the rush of incoming orders leaves no room for intrusive thoughts. Both of these creative outlets offer Tim a retreat from the turmoil he experienced during and after his military service..

Tim, a former aircraft mechanic, was part of a crew that brought home the remains of fellow service members killed in combat. The emotional toll of such a heavy responsibility gave way to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other issues that sent Tim looking for ways to calm his mind.

Finding a creative outlet to lose himself and redirect his thoughts became another mission. With the help of Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP), Tim was able to accomplish that mission.

A Nurturing Nature

When Tim first got out of the military, he still wanted to serve. He began training service dogs for other veterans, but after losing a close friend – and fellow veteran – to suicide in 2015, he felt like he needed to do something that would allow him to escape his emotional pain, if only for a while.

“It shook me to my core. It totally changed my whole outlook on everything,” Tim said. “I really think that was the lowest I’d been since I got out of the military.”

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Tim always enjoyed cooking but didn’t see it as a career. He decided to attend a couple of WWP™ boot camps at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). After taking his kids on a tour, he officially applied to attend the CIA. His culinary journey fed a hunger he didn’t realize he had. Tim saw the opportunity to not only feed others but also feed his soul.

Wounded warrior Tim McDonough found a passion for cooking and wants to use his skills to help other veterans.
Wounded warrior Tim McDonough found a passion for cooking and wants to use his skills to help other veterans.

Tim graduated with honors in May 2023, earning a bachelor’s degree in culinary business management. He then returned to school to get his baking and pastry degree.

He also recaptured some of the excitement and adrenaline rush he had in the military. Through an externship with CIA, he worked under the pressure of high-paced professional kitchens, including a steakhouse owned by celebrity chef and restauranteur Scott Conant.

“When I'm in the zone, and I'm cooking, especially when we're doing high-end cooking or high volume or production, I'm not thinking of anything else. Nothing else can get through that barrier because you're so focused on the fire. I don't care what happened yesterday. I can't think about what's going to happen tomorrow. I can't think about five minutes from now because I’ve got 20 dishes to get out.”

Another WWP outing fueled Tim’s passion for bonsai trees. A group of wounded warriors visited botanical gardens in Colorado and got hands-on experience with bonsai. When they left, the warriors took the bonsai tree they worked on all day. That experience ignited a new passion for Tim.

Creating and maintaining the health and look if his bonsai trees help Tim keep his mind calm and focused.
Creating and maintaining the health and look if his bonsai trees help Tim keep his mind calm and focused.

“I always had plants and stuff, but I got into this one bonsai that I really liked, and now I probably have about 25 of them,” Tim said. “I take care of them like they’re kids.”

Bonsai trees are often symbols of harmony and strength but require regular maintenance and care to reach their full potential. This aspect was particularly appealing to Tim, whose military responsibilities, not surprisingly, took a heavy toll on his mental health. Having an outlet that allowed him to refocus his thoughts on something positive became paramount for his well-being. Concentrating on his bonsai gave Tim a sense of purpose and peace.

“One of the biggest things that I get out of it is it really gives me a sense that I'm creating something,” Tim said.

PTSD and Creativity

PTSD and other trauma can be a debilitating condition, making it difficult to get out of bed or focus on other things.

“There are days when you don't feel like getting up,” Tim said. “It's terrible. You don't feel like moving. The depression kicks in. They say having depression is when everyone wants you to do something, and you want to do nothing. Anxiety is the direct opposite, where you're constantly moving at 100 miles an hour, and nobody can keep up. Having both is hell because your brain is constantly fighting itself.”

Having creative outlets helped Tim quell the fight between his anxiety and depression and keep his PTSD symptoms in check.

“I get in ‘the zone,’ as I call it,” Tim said about both cooking and working on his bonsai trees. “When I'm in the zone, nothing can get through. Nothing can get in and I'm too busy doing the work that I need to do that it comes as one ordered thought after another versus when thoughts keep coming at me at 100 miles an hour constantly.”

WWP’s Warrior Survey* shows veterans struggling with PTSD, depression, and anxiety can often develop unhealthy habits as ways to cope. Providing creative outlets like cooking, music, art, and writing can help veterans develop healthy habits and hobbies that allow them to communicate their feelings or escape the chaos and negative emotions associated with their military trauma.

“For me, one of the most important things is having a different avenue other than what I used to do,” Tim said. “I used to spend all of my time and my energy fixing planes; being downrange. Now I know that I'm creating things with my hands, whether it’s stepping into the fire and creating food for other people and being really happy with the food that I'm cooking or when I'm working on the bonsai trees.”

Tim wants other veterans to know they can find that outlet as well. WWP offers programs and services, including Alumni events, workshops and classes, programs, retreats, and more, to help warriors tap into their creativity and find their passion.

“Don't stop. Try something,” Tim said. “I've been with Wounded Warrior Project for almost 15 years now and anything they offer me to do, I'll try it at least once. [WWP activities] really help me a lot because it honors and empowers me to figure out what is going to help me. The best advice I have is if you don't find the one thing that you like right now, keep trying. Sooner or later, you're going to find something that catches your interest.”

Find out how you can help warriors find their next mission.

*Warrior Survey, Wave 2 (conducted June 15-Aug. 24, 2022)

Contact: — Paris Moulden, Public Relations,, 904.570.7910

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.

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