The Fall That Changed One Veteran’s Life—and the Depression That Followed

“Even if I survive this, what type of quality of life am I gonna have?”

Loading the player...

Like many people who serve in the military, James Fitzgerald found a lot of purpose and pride in his job. He was a member of the renowned 101st Airborne Division, which he calls an “extreme honor and a privilege.” During one mission in November 2010, Fitzgerald sustained a fall that was both literal and figurative. After medical retirement, he experienced depression as he struggled with his new role as a veteran.

The Fall

Fitzgerald and his team were on a mission to clear out terrorist training camps in the mountains of Afghanistan. The mission was especially challenging due to the difficult terrain and the darkness of night.

“What I feel is a large blast of heat on my left-hand side,” recalls Fitzgerald. “My initial thought is, I’m hit by a grenade. I feel a large force push me back, and I start to go down the side of this mountain.”

Fitzgerald remembers picking up speed and tumbling down rapidly, until he landed in a ravine. He believes the fall might have killed him, if it weren’t for the cushion of his backpack, which carried equipment and ammunition. Still, he was severely wounded: He had a gunshot wound in his leg, fractures in his leg, hip, and nose, and injuries to some internal organs.

Depression as a Veteran

Fitzgerald was lucky to survive, but he had a new mission to face: coping with his new reality. Even as he lay injured in that ravine, he wondered, “Even if I survive this, what kind of quality of life am I gonna have?” He wondered if he would even be able to walk again.

“The depression came when it really sank in that my military life is no longer gonna be the same, and I have no clue what tomorrow is gonna look like,” says Fitzgerald. “The challenge that was in front of me was finding a new way to serve.”

At first, he says he had to deal with his emotions. He says he felt a lot of pity, and he often let the pain control him. “I let the pain convince me that it was in charge, and it continuously gave me a voice that was not my own,” he recalls. (Learn more about symptoms of depression here.)

“What I would say to everyone that’s recovering is be true to yourself and to listen to yourself,” says Fitzgerald. “You know your body better than anyone else will. I still sort of kick myself for outsourcing that confidence to other people, instead of keeping it in house.”