When Zach Dochnahl graduates from SMU’s Doctor of Physical Therapy program next year, he hopes to work with veterans like himself who return from combat with significant injuries.
“I’d really like to give back,” says Dochnahl. “I think I can provide a certain perspective to the Veterans Administration that other people can’t.”
Dochnahl was on patrol in Afghanistan when an explosion blew up the back of his Humvee in 2007. His only memories are the smell of diesel fuel and having his uniform ripped off in the Blackhawk helicopter that carried him to a hospital for emergency surgery.
He woke up disoriented the next day, suffering from a traumatic brain injury as well as a collapsed lung and lacerated spleen, liver and kidney. While still in his hospital bed, he received a Purple Heart and the prestigious Combat Infantryman’s Badge.
But it was another explosion that would seal Dochnahl decision to return to the battlefield. Only days after he was injured, his team leader was killed in a similar attack in Afghanistan. He says the sergeant was sitting in the same “suicide seat” located over the gas tank in the back of a Humvee that he had been in when he was hurt.
While attending his sergeant’s funeral, Dochnahl resolved to return to Afghanistan to support his “brothers” and worked hard with physical therapists for two months so he could rejoin his platoon on the battlefield.
That period of rehabilitation would eventually influence his decision to become a physical therapist. On his return to civilian life in 2009, he reflected on his recovery and decided to attend college so he could pursue a future in healthcare. After graduating from the University of Washington, Dochnahl got a job at a Seattle clinic where he worked as an aide to a physical therapist who became his mentor.
“He really trained me to see how people move,” says Dochnahl. “He trusted me enough to teach me things and spark an interest in something I could do for the rest of my life.”
It was not his original goal, however. Dochnahl says he intended to spend his career in the military when he joined the Army right out of high school.
“I wanted to serve my country,” he says.
A quest for adventure also made him excited about fighting in Afghanistan with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, a parachute force trained to deploy anywhere at any time.
“I wanted to shoot guns and chase after bad guys,” Dochnahl says.
But he was also looking for something deeper. Growing up in a small town outside of Seattle with a father who struggled with substance abuse, Dochnahl says he often got into trouble. Being in the Army gave him role models and helped him learn values, he says.
“I needed to find some direction in my life and the military gave me that,” says Dochnahl.