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Veteran Navy corpsman's new mission: fighting combat stress

By MIKE IRWIN | The Wenatchee World, Wash. | Published: May 6, 2016

WENATCHEE, Wash. (Tribune News Service) — The U.S. Navy’s most decorated physician assistant — a warrior medic who’s helped hundreds of military personnel in his 25-year military career — now has a new mission to ease the pain of returning servicemen and women suffering from combat stress.

Mark Donald, an author and businessman who himself suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, says communities such as Wenatchee should welcome returning military “with gratitude for their service coupled with caring and understanding for their physical and emotional health.”

A former Marine and Navy SEAL who retired from active duty in 2010, Donald serves this year as Grand Marshal of the 97th Washington State Apple Blossom Festival’s Stemilt Growers Grand Parade. He delivered the keynote address Wednesday at the festival’s All-Service Club Luncheon, which drew an overflow crowd of nearly 500 service club members and civic and business leaders.

Donald’s wife, Lt. Cmdr. Korinna Donald, also spoke at the gathering. She’s a department head for the medical arm of a Navy Special Warfare Logistics Support Unit.

Mark Donald is the author of “Battle Ready: Memoir of a SEAL Warrior Medic,” an autobiographical account of a medic “who advances into combat with life-saving equipment in one hand and life-taking weapons in the other,” according to a promotional blurb for the book.

Donald’s book is currently being developed into a TV show by movie producer and director Joe Carnahan (“The A-Team,” “Smokin’ Aces,” “The Grey”).

Mark Donald was introduced by Sandy Wheeler, Wenatchee businessman and former Navy serviceman with links to the special warfare group SEAL Team Six. Wheeler has known the Donalds for just over a year and has helped Mark Donald with his latest, not-yet-published book.

Wheeler asked the crowd to welcome Mark Donald with the traditional Navy SEAL acknowledgement, a loud and rousing: “Hooyah!” They did.

“I’ve been in the Marines and I’ve been in the Navy,” said Donald, warming up the All-Service Club Lunch crowd. “So, yes, I admit I’m a cross-dresser.”

Donald’s military honors include the Navy Cross, Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, the Special Warfare (SEAL) breast insignia, the Honduran Medal of Merit and other service awards.

“But not one of those awards is mine, not a single one,” he told the gathering. “They all came from teamwork, from training closely with a group of men until you know their intentions and reactions. The award goes to all of them, as a unit, as a team.”

In a later interview, Donald said combat stress among military personnel is a growing problem among returning military personnel.

In his own case, Donald experienced PTSD following combat injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has suffered from irritability and high anxiety, severe lack of sleep, constantly churning thoughts and seeing potential threats at every turn.

“Coming home (from war) meant stepping into a busy culture that presented sensory overload at every turn,” said Donald. “In many ways, the triggers for stress were more numerous here than in combat. The questions I faced constantly were how to adjust, how to get along.”

The answer, said Donald, was to avoid the pressures of a do-it-now culture and re-enter American society slowly, following his own personal timetable.

Donald also had help from his female black lab service dog Hope, who he said offered “unconditional love and immediate forgiveness” no matter how anxious he got. Hope helped limit surprise stimuli, gently keeping people at bay and helping Donald relax in crowds.

“That’s my advice to any community hoping to help returning service people,” said Donald. “Get them involved in activities without adding the pressures of conforming, of socializing, of adapting and healing overnight.”

He said, “The best way to help someone with combat stress is to remain relaxed and easy-going — patient, caring, understanding. That’s when healing can really take place.”

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©2016 The Wenatchee World (Wenatchee, Wash.)
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