Duluth soldier deals with challenges of coming home from war

Joe McDonell takes a spare moment to sit down and have a smoke while deployed in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Joe McDonell Guns were firing all around him. He was holding his weapon and ready to fire when he turned around to his captain and said, “Sir, you need to get down and get some cover. You may get shot.”

His captain didn’t duck. He turned around again to warn him a second time, but as he opened his mouth to speak the man he was trying to warn was shot in the face. Blood splattered everywhere.

Joe McDonell, 25, returned home to Duluth, Minn., from serving as an infantry man in Afghanistan this past November. He was stationed in Afghanistan for one year.

“Maybe had I grabbed him and pulled him down he’d still be here today,” McDonell said.

McDonell rubbed his face and blinked away tears that swelled up in his eyes as he described the terrifying experience he witnessed in Afghanistan.

McDonell enlisted in the military immediately following high school graduation. Although the payment and benefits played a role in his decision to join the military, McDonell’s main purpose for joining the military was more significant than that.

“A lot of my family was in the military,” McDonell said. “I wanted to do it for them.”

Like McDonell, both of his grandfathers were infantry men in the military. Six of his uncles, two of his aunts, his mom and two of his cousins served as well.

In addition to following in his family’s footsteps, McDonell felt a strong desire to fight for his country.

“I know it’s corny,” McDonell said. “But it’s true. I wanted to serve.”

Once he enlisted he quickly realized that life in Afghanistan is much different than life back home.

“You’re never safe,” McDonell said.

On an average afternoon, McDonell was heading to get lunch with some of his buddies.

“Hey, are you gonna come back to get some chow with us?” McDonell asked his fellow soldier Edwin Rivera.

He then heard a high pitched whistle sound and suddenly his lunch plans changed. A mortar round bounced into his view about 30 meters in front of him. It blew him off his feet.

“I looked up and he wasn’t there. He was gone. He just ceased to be,” McDonell said of the soldier.

McDonell now wears a black bracelet on his right wrist in remembrance of Rivera. The words “SSG Edwin Rivera” are embossed on the silicone band.

McDonell and some of his fellow soldiers designed these bracelets and sold them to help raise money for Rivera’s family and to remember their close friend.

“There are a lot of people that you learn to care about and then you lose,” McDonell said. “And you have to try to come back from that.”

Since coming home from Afghanistan, McDonell has suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). According to the National Institute of Mental Health, PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can develop when a person experiences severe physical or emotional trauma.

McDonell often re-experiences scenarios that occurred when he was in Afghanistan.

“I’ll be driving a car and I’ll hit a bump and I’ll imagine myself back in Afghanistan,” he said. “Someone closes a door a little too loud and I’ll picture someone kicking a door in.”

It has also become harder for McDonell to control his anger. Just before St. Patrick’s Day he got into an argument with a stranger in Duluth. He doesn’t recall what they were arguing about, but the other guy hit him in the face and McDonell hit him back, breaking his nose.

“I just reacted to his anger,” McDonell said.

McDonell realizes that he needs to learn how to better control his emotions.

“I definitely know I need therapy if that’s how I react to someone yelling at me,” McDonell said.

Due to his lack of confidence in his ability to control his emotions he limits the amount of time he spends with his niece and nephew. Although they live close by, he has only seen them twice since he has been home from the war. He is cautious about the activities he engages in with them because he doesn’t want to put himself in a situation which could result in him reacting poorly.

Referring to his seven-year-old nephew McDonell said, “I don’t want him to see me as someone totally different. I want him to see me like he used to see me—as his hero. I don’t ever want to yell at him. He’s my little buddy.”

McDonell’s friend of six years, Chris Burns, has also noticed that McDonell has changed since coming home from Afghanistan. Burns said that prior to leaving for Afghanistan McDonell had never raised his voice to kids, but now he has “a shorter fuse and is easily agitated.”

“He will get angry if he has to tell [my daughter] to do something more than once,” Burns said.

Although McDonell can become easily bothered, Burns claims that McDonell is intelligent enough to walk away from the situation to calm himself down.

“He’s definitely different,” Burns said. “His personality has definitely changed, but to me he’s still the same old Joe.”

Not only has McDonell’s personality changed since coming home from Afghanistan, but his outlook on life has changed as well.

“All the things that were big issues before I went over there aren’t big issues anymore,” McDonell said.

He recently heard a person at the Horseshoe Bar complaining about what McDonell would consider minute issues compared to the problems he experienced in Afghanistan.

“Shut up because I don’t wanna hear it,” he said to the man in the bar.

McDonell now feels more callous to small issues, such as being late for work.

“Getting dropped off on an LZ [landing zone] in the middle of the night is a big issue,” McDonell said. “Your buddy getting shot in the face is a big issue.”

McDonell finds it important for American citizens to become knowledgeable about the situations that soldiers experience. He wants people to realize that the soldiers that become casualties of war aren’t just numbers. They’re people.

“They have family back home that are crying their eyes out,” McDonell said.

He wants people to understand that soldiers don’t just disappear for a while and come home feeling just as good as they did when they left.

“I want people to understand why we come back messed up. I want people to support the soldiers,” McDonell said.

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