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The Bush Institute Speaks with Dave Smith about the Invisible Wounds of War

March 4, 2016 by Ashley McConkey, David Smith
Because we know that the health and wellbeing of post-9/11 veterans is often complex, the Bush Institute has asked veterans to explain in their own words what it’s like to experience one or more of these injuries.

This year, the Bush Institute is launching a new initiative to raise awareness about the invisible wounds of war: Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post Traumatic Stress (PTS).  A major focus of our work will examine how best to ensure veterans seek and receive effective treatment. We also will concentrate on strategies to eliminate barriers to care, including removing stigmas associated with these wounds.  Because we know that the health and wellbeing of post-9/11 veterans is often complex, the Bush Institute has asked veterans to explain in their own words what it’s like to experience one or more of these injuries.

We wrap up with Dave Smith, a member of Team 43 Sports, who has participated in the Warrior 100K. He spoke recently with the Bush Institute about how he came to understand the impact of the invisible wounds of war and the role physical activity played in his recovery. 

Can you tell us a little bit about your service?  What made you want to join the military? What was your branch and rank, and where were you stationed? 

I joined the Marine Corps after high school and enlisted as a rifleman.  I was sent to Alpha Company “Raiders” of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines.  When we arrived in Iraq, everything was really peaceful and quiet. We built great relationships with the Iraqi forces we were training and learned a lot about the history and culture of Iraq.  My team ran security patrols, talked with villagers and tried to help the local government stabilize.

Soon after, things suddenly escalated as militia fighters fought for control of the country. We lost a lot of good Marines and many more were severely injured.  It was hard and nothing seemed to make any sense.  I think at some point, I just shut down as a person because I didn’t know how to process or deal with it. 

In learning about invisible wounds, PTS and TBI, we know they affect everyone differently.  We have also learned that the road to recovery looks a bit different for everyone affected by these wounds.  Can you share with us what your recovery has been like?  What helped you? 

If I had to describe my transition from the Marine Corps into civilian life, I would use a single word: unprepared. I didn’t know much about writing a resume, applying for jobs or seeking mentorship and guidance. I have no idea what happened along the way but I found myself deeply depressed, suicidal and simply unable to care about anything at all.

In just a few years I had gone from the happy, fun-loving kid I was in high-school to a sort of Jekyll & Hyde personality as I struggled to find myself again after coming home from war. I’m still not quite able to put into words what went on inside me. But I do know that it would have been much easier if I had someone there to guide, mentor and provide professional resources along the way. 

Many of us leave the military and find that we are alone, unprepared and separated from people we loved enough to take a bullet for. We miss the camaraderie, the sense of purpose and the clearly defined values. To put it bluntly, we need better transitions.

Veterans are not a monolithic group; we come in all makes, shapes and sizes. We need to eliminate the military/civilian divide, come together and start ensuring that the right resources are easily accessible for the right people at the right moment. This is what the Bush Institute is working hard to achieve.

What role have sports and physical activities played in your recovery, both physically and mentally?

Sports has played a large role in my recovery.  I participated in a 4-day mountain biking event with President Bush and about 20 other warriors. The event was an incredible experience that opened the door to many lifelong friendships and provided a chance to laugh again when I needed it most.

In 2009, I ran my first marathon in Los Angeles to raise money for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which provides scholarships to the families of special operations personnel who have been killed or severely injured in combat. I had a goal of running under 4 hours and I managed to finish in 3:50. It was a great feeling and I also raised $2.5k for SOWF. 

I ran that L.A. marathon wearing a shirt that had photos of Alex Arredondo and Nick Skinner on it. Alex and Nick were two of our Marines killed during intense fighting in Najaf in August of 2004. Losing Alex and Nick was really hard because they were two of the most inspiring people I have ever met. I promised myself that I would live every single day to be worthy of their sacrifice… I still do my best to make good on that promise to this day.

I remember back then, that I always felt like I was running from something. I never felt at peace or satisfied. I think it always bothered me that great people like Alex and Nick were still being killed in combat while I was drinking beer in college. I wanted to do more and running a marathon was only the beginning.

What would you say to other veterans who are struggling with their transition, especially those who have not made the decision to seek help? 

Don’t wait until things get bad; take responsibility for your own life and future now. There are so many incredible resources out there that are available to you if you just take the first step. I had a shotgun in my mouth before finally deciding to take responsibility for my transition and I hope that nobody else has to go through that. 

Listen to me:

  • Seeking help is not weakness. It is the foundation of strength.
  • Take responsibility. Running from problems and drowning them in alcohol is not a solution.
  • Do the counseling; it works. Give it time.
  • Learn to love again. Not everyone wants to break your heart.
  • Give back to your community. They look up to you.
  • Live life to its fullest. Don’t bottle up your emotions.
  • Find your true self. Being you takes courage and it gives others permission to be themselves.
  • Life knocks all of us down. Success is determined by how quickly you are willing to get back up.
  • Once you truly make it past your own struggles, reach out and help someone else.


Ashley McConkey
Ashley McConkey

Ashley McConkey manages communications for the George W. Bush Presidential Center and is responsible for message development on behalf of the Economic Growth, Human Freedom and Military Service initiatives.

Before joining the Bush Center, McConkey worked in the communications and public policy arena in Austin, Texas for both non-profit and corporate entities.  She also served as a Budget and Policy Adviser to Texas House Speaker Joe Straus. 

McConkey grew up in Greenville, Texas and moved to Austin to study Political Science at St. Edward’s University.  She and her husband reside in Dallas.

Full Bio
David  Smith
David Smith

Corporal David J. Smith joined the Marine Corps in 2003 and served as an Infantry Rifleman and Team Leader with Alpha Company “Raiders” of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment.  He was deployed twice in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  During his service, his unit was engaged in some of the heaviest fighting of the war to date including the battle of An Najaf in August 2004.  Smith was honorably discharged in 2007, but upon his return to the States experienced severe symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress.

One event, in particular, hurt him the most.  During an intense gunfight one night while trapped on the roof of a burning building, Smith caught movement and muzzle flashes out of the corner of his eye coming from a nearby alleyway below his position.  He didn’t have his night-vision mounted because his team had been clearing through the building.  Acting on instinct, Smith shot into that group of targets moving toward their position. It turned out to be a group of Marines and Smith wounded one of them.  That warrior was sent home and had part of his foot amputated.  Smith lost contact with him for many years and he didn’t know how well he was doing.  It was the single most painful, regrettable moment of his life.  Knowing that he had injured one of his own, “It haunted me for years.”

Afterwards, Smith says, “I had a very hard time admitting that something was wrong.  Instead of taking responsibility for my transition like I should have and asking for help, I tried to ignore it all because it was painful and embarrassing and I didn’t want to appear weak.  Ultimately, I found myself staring down the barrel of a shotgun.  That’s when I realized I just couldn’t fix the problems on my own and I needed help.”

Smith participated in his first event with the Bush Center in 2012, riding in the W100k just a month after he had contemplated suicide.  At that time, he remembers feeling like his heart was going to explode every day from all the emotions he was finally feeling again.  It was really nice to be biking and laughing among other warriors.  Since then, Smith works towards providing transition assistance for fellow veterans and eliminating the stigma of post-traumatic stress.  In February 2015, Smith participated on a panel discussion with President Bush and three other veterans about transition in hopes it helps someone else avoid the same big mistake he almost made. “Seek the help you need and you’ll respect yourself for it.”

Today, Smith is a great example of Post-Traumatic Growth.  He has re-focused himself, overcame obstacles, and is living a rich, fulfilling life.  After graduating from UC Berkeley, Smith interned on the New York Stock Exchange, delivered disaster response with Team Rubicon in the Philippines, and traveled to almost 30 countries doing missionary and humanitarian projects.  He finished those projects in December 2014 and moved to Norway, where he lives with his wife and works as the Chief Marketing Officer for Dogu AS, a software start-up company, while running a veteran transition resource blog on the side.

“Day-to-day life is amazing,” says Smith. “I don't struggle with depression and anxiety, I'm not afraid to fall in love or show my emotions, and I work hard to be a great man every single day. I refuse to let past failures or experiences shape the way that I view the world. I’ve never been happier, healthier, or more at peace than I am today.”

Full Bio