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Wounded warrior, saved by the program, comes back to Northern New York

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Former Fort Drum soldier Andrew W. Coughlan says he would not be alive if it weren’t for the Wounded Warrior Project.

After seeing many of his friends die in Iraq, Mr. Coughlan, now 29 and an alumni manager for the Wounded Warrior Project in Florida, came home from his yearlong deployment in 2003 and 2004 suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

He suffered from substance abuse and depression. He was angry and felt guilty about surviving his time in Iraq. Drinking and outbursts caused marital problems and eventually led to a divorce.

“My life was a train wreck,” he said Friday morning during his first visit to Watertown since serving as a specialist in the 10th Mountain Division in 2006.

He came to Watertown as a spokesman for the Wounded Warrior Project for this weekend’s hockey tournament at the Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds ice arena. The event will raise money for the national veterans service organization, which offers a variety of programs, services and events for wounded veterans and was formed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Another Fort Drum combat veteran, James O’Leary, called him and told him about the Wounded Warrior Project and how the organization helped him after he got home from Iraq, Mr. Coughlan said.

Soon after that, the Wounded Warrior Project sent him to a Michigan University football game, where he took part in the coin toss at the beginning of the game with two other wounded warriors.

While more than 100,000 fans watched the game in the stadium that day, the three former soldiers talked with one another about their experiences during their deployments.

“I don’t remember a lot of the game,” he said.

Mr. Coughlan, just 20 years old when he returned from Iraq, was motivated by Sept. 11 to join the Army. He landed in Baghdad on that date two years later, and, coincidentally, returned from his deployment precisely a year later, on Sept. 11, 2004.

During that year, he served in an area of Iraq known as the “Triangle of Death.” He suffered a brain injury as a result of an attack on his camp. On July 19, 2004, a series of mortar shells fell around Mr. Coughlan and his teammates of Bravo Company 1-32, 10th Mountain Division, he recalled.

They took cover in a cement bunker. But it soon took a direct hit.

A friend shielded him from a blast and was killed instantly. He also saw his team leader killed when their tent was struck by mortar fire. That blast caused a chain-reaction fire that burned down the entire camp, he said.

While rockets continued to rain down on them, Mr. Coughlan started helping the wounded — bandaging bloody faces, loading medevac helicopters — anything to save lives. For his efforts, he was awarded the Army Commendation Medal with “V” for valor and heroism.

It was a day he cannot forget. Nor does he want to talk about it.

During a four-month stay in a Veteran Affairs hospital, he learned that he had PTSD after suffering frequent nightmares about his deployment, he said.

But he credits the Wounded Warrior Project and support from friends and family for “turning my life around,” Mr. Coughlan said.

As a part of that support, the group sent him on a weeklong retreat in New York City for soldiers dealing with combat stress, called Project Odyssey. The experience helped him open up about what happened over there. He also went through an education program that was instrumental in getting his life back, Mr. Coughlan said.

The nightmares have subsided. Through his contact with the organization, he landed a job with the Jacksonville Jaguars, videotaping the NFL team’s practices for the offensive and defensive lines. The job, he said, gave him back his confidence.

He now helps other wounded warriors. As an alumni manager for the Southeastern region of the country, he helps with crisis intervention and peer mentoring, while visiting with combat veterans in a variety of settings, he said.

He has since remarried his ex-wife, Ashley K., and they live in Jacksonville, Fla., with their two daughters, Maddison K., 6, and Emory R., 3.

On Friday night, the former Fort Drum soldier dropped the first puck at the local Wounded Warriors hockey tournament that a group of state corrections officers organized to raise money for the organization.

Teams made up of local firefighters, state troopers and the Fort Drum Mountaineers are participating in the nationally sanctioned event. The tournament, which runs through Sunday night, is part of the rebooted Snowtown USA winter festival that began on New Year’s Eve.

Mr. Coughlan also intended to head to Fort Drum to check out a couple of new war monuments dedicated to Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.

“It’ll be the first time I’ve been at Fort Drum since I left,” he said.

IF YOU GO
• The Wounded Warrior hockey tournament at the Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds runs through Sunday.
• Today’s games will be from 9 a.m. to noon and from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. The tournament concludes on Sunday, with games scheduled from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.
• Organized by a group of state corrections officers, the event raises money for the national Wounded Warrior Project. It also is part of the Snowtown USA festival.
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