Douglas Connor joined the Army at 17 and spent three years in the infantry, posted in Alaska. Years later, while in the reserves, he served in a combat hospital in Mosul, Iraq, amid the chaos that led to the troop surge in 2007. By 2008, he was living in the Bay Area, an admitted mess.
Newly married, he was drinking too much and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I went into the service all gung-ho," Connor, now 42, said while sitting in the sun recently outside a Kansas City coffee shop, "and came out not wanting to go to malls."
In short, Connor's experience parallels that of thousands of young Americans who have gone to war.
But that's only the beginning. His story intersects with recent headlines in numerous ways. He has been both a patient at a Veterans Affairs facility in California and now serves as a nurse practitioner at a VA clinic in Kansas City. His father, Bill Connor, a retired lieutenant colonel, who lives in Leavenworth, Kan., crossed paths with Eric Shinseki, the embattled former VA secretary — first at West Point and then in a Hawaii hospital in the 1960s where both recovered from injuries suffered in Vietnam.
Doug Connor is not defensive about the administrative scandals that have beset the VA and brought on new calls for reform in Congress — except to note that the controversy tends to overshadow the high quality of care that veterans expect and receive at VA facilities.
"I think this is all going to be healthy in the end," he said.
Connor works with patients in a chronic wound clinic — men with diabetic foot ulcers, soldiers injured in Iraq or Afghanistan, and those experiencing the lingering effects of exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
There was a time not long ago when the square-jawed Connor couldn't bear the thought of working in another ICU or in situations that would trigger memories of Mosul. Before Iraq, he had worked at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and as an ICU nurse at Kaiser Hospital in Walnut Creek, Calif. After Iraq, he tried going back to Kaiser, but the ventilators and dying patients sent him spiraling downward, he said.
A conversation one night with a patient — the older man was a veteran of World War II — led him to a veterans center, where a counselor helped Connor get past his nightmares and put him on a path to get his life in order.
During a period that saw struggle, uncertainty, therapy, perseverance and the birth of his two children, Connor began a vocational rehabilitation program through the VA, training as a family nurse practitioner.
"All the way through my retraining I was mentored and supported by an organization called Sentinels of Freedom," Connor said in an email following our initial interview, referring to a non-profit group that provides scholarships to wounded veterans.
"After graduation I knew I wanted to work for the VA," he said. "The organization was working with the population I cared for more than any in the world."
Initially, Connor took a job in a VA compensation and pension department in California. Soon, Connor's wife, Karen, wanted to finish her education — "her life had basically been on hold the whole time I was in recovery" — so they elected to move to Leavenworth, to be near his parents. They could help care for the kids while he worked and his wife commuted to KU.
Connor appears to be happy and thriving in his job at the VA. He knows that he and his colleagues could make more money in the private health care market, but serving veterans is what they choose to do.
"We vets can be complicated, time consuming, etc.," he said. "We also have a lot to offer. The VA can improve and will improve. Basically, for the most part, vets love their VA and want to see it improved not dismantled."