John Woodard grew up in Baltimore City. To avoid the kind of future he saw on the streets around him, he joined the marines as soon as he graduated high school. He finished bootcamp as a squad leader, at the top of his class, and was recruited by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service to work undercover taking down drug cartels. It was difficult and dangerous work. He was barely 20 years old. In 2008, John left the marines.
When I first came home, I had to clear the house or the room before I let my mom enter it,” he remembers. “I was low crawling around the living room, experiencing gaps in my memory, applying my counterterrorism training to inappropriate situations. I was sleepwalking through life like a zombie. But I didn’t think I needed help.
The Battlefield to the OR
Eventually, John found work as a surgical technician in operating rooms—working on cases from brain surgery to organ transplants to labor and delivery. He did this work for 10 years at hospitals including University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins.
In 2020, his PTSD symptoms began to worsen. He struggled to remember the over 20,000 types of instruments he needed to know for his job. He began to have trouble functioning in the high stress environment of operating rooms and couldn’t keep up with doctor’s orders or make decisions quickly while lives were on the line. He feared he would freeze up or forget what to do. Hypervigilance kept him on edge. During the difficult days of COVID-19, the hospital was short staffed, and his workload became overwhelming.
I was fighting for my patients and for patient safety,” John remembers. “But with the PTSD and the paranoia, I had to walk away from certain things. I knew my thinking was messed up. I was having flashbacks and nightmares of a marine, a battle buddy who I had tried and failed to save. I was fighting with my coworkers and my wife. I couldn’t manage my mental illness.
He took medical leave and was eventually let go from his job. He couldn’t make rent and was evicted.
Veterans Services Steps In
In August of 2023, he reached out to Sheppard Pratt’s Veterans Services. “I was introduced to this program through a friend who had said it had helped them,” John says.
“They started really changing things for me. I needed assistance with my mental illness, so they took me inpatient for 72 hours, got me evaluated, got me medication. They got me scheduled for all my telehealth psychiatry appointments. Once I was stable, they set us up with temporary housing. They got my family, my kids, into a safe neighborhood.
I got so much reinforcement from them calling me all the time. They called out of the blue just to see how I was, to see if I needed anything. They were so open and just here for you. It is up to the veteran to receive it, but they are there for you.
Veterans Services got me and my family out of a situation that I was in before where I was not appreciated, and I was not being supported for my mental illness. Now I am in a better location with my family with a peaceful mind, instead of in a crime-infested area where I could hardly sleep because of fear and hypervigilance. I would like to thank the Veterans Services programs for coming to my rescue. I’ve been using this time to heal and get help with my PTSD, and I’ve been going back to school. Veterans Services made that possible.
I would like to say thank you for keeping your word and coming through in my time of need. I wasn’t getting any support from anywhere and they came in and saved me, saved my whole year. I was depressed, I was upset, I was thinking about suicide. And I just want to say thank you.
A Comeback Kid
Today, John is about to take the exam to receive his FAA license to fly unmanned drones. This license could open opportunities for him in real estate, construction, movie making, wedding photography, and more. “But the best thing,” John says, “is that you can take the test at 16. So, I plan to teach my son everything I learn and give him a leg up in the professional world.”
“I consider myself a comeback kid now,” John says. “I am headed into my third career, and I am going into aviation. I just keep going. I plan to continue to heal, hopefully buy some land and grow things, and continue to raise my family.
To other vets who are where I was, I would say you can’t get discouraged. You can find a way. Reach out for help when you need it. It takes a team, just like in the military. Veterans Services was part of my team.”