In 2013, Shealynn Casserly was deployed to Afghanistan as a combat medic. Three months later, she went through a life-altering experience.
She was out with engineers doing routine clearance early in the morning. She remembers the sky being a beautiful indigo blue as it was just starting to get light and that they were making trivial conversation when their vehicle hit an improvised explosive device (IED). Casserly was thrown 40 feet, so far that the other soldiers had to search for her.
What it looks like when a military vehicle hits an IED. Photo via U.S. Army/Flickr.
Later, she was told she had been lucid enough to help the soldiers assess and preliminarily care for her multiple injuries, but she has no memory of that. After the explosion, the next thing she remembers is waking up in a hospital bed three days later with her brother beside her.
"I saw a lot of white, and just from that, I knew I wasn't in Afghanistan anymore; it was clean, not tan and dusty," Casserly recalls.
Casserly had been airlifted to Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C. She'd suffered a number of serious injuries, including a broken jaw, broken eye socket, broken hand, seven broken ribs, a perforated ear drum, two broken femurs, and a dislocated left knee. While in recovery, part of her intestines exploded due to a bowel obstruction and had to be repaired. She also had a traumatic brain injury.
Over the next five years, Casserly underwent over 60 surgeries to repair her damaged body. But the work she had to do on her mind was a different story altogether.
Shealynn in recovery. Photo via Shealynn Casserly.
"For the first two months, I didn't even know if I had legs," Casserly says.
Casserly was confined to a hospital bed, unable to even turn over without assistance. She was averaging three to four surgeries a week and was often in and out of consciousness because the initial recovery period was so painful.
The first time she actually took a breath of air outside was that July two months after the accident. It was 100 degrees in D.C., and she was able to go to Walter Reed's rooftop garden by operating an electric wheelchair with her uninjured hand.
Unsurprisingly, all this took quite a toll on her mental state. While she had constant support from her mom and brother (who spent those first four months of Casserly's recovery sleeping next to her bed), she couldn't shake the depression welling up inside her.
"I was just so overwhelmed mentally and physically," Casserly remembers.
She was also so focused on her physical recuperation that she didn't realize what the experience was doing to her mind until her surgeries started to die down.
Shealynn Casserly. Photo via Shealynn Casserly, used with permission.
Eventually, Casserly hit a real low point, where she started contemplating suicide — an effect of post-traumatic stress disorder that's all too common in veterans.
In fact, women who've served are 2.4 times more likely to commit suicide than a female civilian. And that rate has increased over 85% since 2001.
"Unless you've been there, you don't realize how low people can feel," Casserly says.
Determined to climb out of her depression somehow, Casserly started a hardcore workout regimen. She knew that exercising produces endorphins that can elevate mood, so once she had gotten to a point in her recovery where she could handle some physical activity, she got moving.
At the end of that year, she and her brother were going to the gym six hours a day every day for weeks.
She was afraid at first that it wasn't making any difference, but then she woke up one day and felt legitimately good for the first time since the accident.
"I called my mom and said, 'I feel like how I used to feel,'" Casserly recalls.
Never wanting to hit such a low point again, Casserly has kept up her rigorous workout schedule and even added in some sports competitions.
Casserly practicing the shot put for the 2016 Department of Defense Warrior Games at West Point. Photo by Angelique Jefferson/U.S. Army.
In 2016, she competed in the Department of Defense Warrior Games, where she tried her hand at things like shot put and discus. She also did some snowboarding at the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic and has since continued to explore adaptive sports.
Through her athletic endeavors, she's made a lot of friends; she even met her boyfriend, Derek Gamez, at Walter Reed's base gym. He has become another incredible support system for her.
That said, her mental and physical recovery is an ongoing process. It's not always easy, but she continues to push herself forward.
Shealynn in physical therapy. Photo via Shealynn Casserly.
Some days are lower than others, especially if she doesn't get to exercise. She also recognizes that her experience has changed her — mostly for the better.
Casserly felt like she used to come across as a pushover, but thanks to all she's gone through, she's now much more vocal when it comes to her mental and emotional health. And she's actively looking for ways to help other injured vets who might be struggling through their recovery.
"I want to use what's happened to me to benefit other people," she says.
While she says she's not the best at speaking in front of a crowd, Casserly has been able to talk with fellow vets one on one about what they're going through and empathize in a meaningful way.
When emotional pain goes unnoticed it can have detrimental impacts just the same as physical pain. But hopefully, with vets like Casserly telling their stories, more vets who are suffering silently will feel like they, too, can ask for help.