Martin vet sees no obstacles despite war injury

Martin vet sees no obstacles despite war injury
Martin vet sees no obstacles despite war injury | Daniel McConnell
No, wounded combat veteran and ETSU medical student Daniel McConnell is not heading into the Alaskan wilderness. His summer journey will take him across the U.S. Why? To meet people, of course. Daniel McConnell is about to hit the road on another life journey. This time around, the 30-year-old former Army helicopter pilot is driving across the country to meet the people he dedicated 11 years of his life to protecting. McConnell just finished his first year of medical school, so he figures it is time for an adventure. McConnell entered East Tennessee State University’s James H. Quillen College of Medicine last year minus his right hand. He suffered the injury during a brief deployment in Afghanistan. After serving a decade in active duty and the National Guard and completing his undergraduate studies in his hometown at the University of Tennessee at Martin, McConnell began classes at ETSU’s medical school in the fall semester of 2006. Assigned to an attack aviation unit in Kandahar, it was both his first trip to Afghanistan and his first foray into combat. “Mostly we just gave attack support that anyone needed down south of the country,” he said. On April 28, 2006, about two months into his deployment, McConnell and another pilot were flying their Apache helicopter on an escort mission when they crashed. “The Black Hawk (helicopter) we were escorting cut us off,” he said. “At least that’s how I remember it happening. The official findings were different, but the other pilot and I distinctively remember the same thing.” The Apache’s main rotor system took off his right hand. He also suffered hearing loss, a mild head injury and several broken bones in his back. The other pilot escaped with only minor injuries. So, McConnell lives his life with an eye out for challenges. “I’ve got a 1984 Chevy Suburban with 230,000 miles on it. It’s actually the most reliable vehicle I have,” McConnell said with a smile. “So, I’m planning on leaving Wednesday or Thursday and heading across the country, meeting people and seeing the United States. If I have a major breakdown with the Suburban, I plan on selling it to whatever scrap dealer is around and figuring out what I’ll do from there.” He and his dog Rocky plan to sleep in the Suburban when possible. “The gas mileage isn’t the best in the world, but I’m planning to live out of the back of it. That’s a lot cheaper than motel rooms,” McConnell said. “I’ve always liked to see places. A lot of people talk about using the summer to go see the world. I’ve seen the world. I’ve been to numerous countries on numerous continents as it is. So, it occurred to me that other than flying over or stopping in an airport, I haven’t seen a whole lot of this country and I definitely haven’t met a lot of people in it.” Initially, he wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail this summer. “It dawned on me that, given the fact I had seven broken bones in my back, that might not be the hottest idea I’ve ever had,” McConnell said and laughed. “I figured I’ve got this big, ugly truck sitting outside I might as well figure out something to do with it. I figured I would drive around and see friends. The whole thing grew from there.” You can follow his adventure on his personal Internet blog page. “I never thought about a blog initially,” McConnell said. “My original plan was to paint a sign across the back of the Suburban reading, ‘You are following a combat wounded amputee from Afghanistan who is circling the United States to meet the country he fought for. Donations appreciated.’ ” And he’s not using the amount of donations he receives as a gauge of patriotism. “Obviously, nobody has an over-abundance of money right now,” McConnell said. “There are probably those who are really patriotic who can’t afford to give a dime. I would like to see if people really would be willing to give. Since I put the blog up, gas prices have pretty much doubled. That has blown my budget out the window. I figured I could do half the trip, or ask for money.” And he hopes to write a book about his travels. “Since information about the trip is online, I have gotten comments that the idea for the trip is cool and others who feel like I’m not sensitive to the environment because I’ll be burning all this gas,” McConnell said. “There are a lot of people who feel like I want them to pay for me to go on vacation. There are a few who have said, ‘What makes you think you are so special?’ ” He wants to see and hear what the people of the United States have to say. “To me, all comments are useful,” McConnell said. “Nobody is going to say anything that will send me over the edge or make me too mad. Even people’s negativity is what I want to see. I’m out to see people. Going into medicine, you are going to be dealing with all sorts of people. I thought this trip might give me a slightly different insight into the people from all over the country.” Follow Daniel’s “around the country” adventure at www.danielsbigtrip.blogspot.com. If you want to donate to the cause by mail, write to Daniel McConnell, P.O. Box 595, Mountain Home, TN 37684. Gregg Powers is a staff writer with the Johnson City Press. Powers can be reached at gpowers@johnsoncitypress.com

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