Retired Army veteran Morgan Sneed sat on his living room floor in Monroe, Louisiana, with a .357 revolver next to him, contemplating a potentially fatal decision. For him, only two options existed.
“I was going to pack my shit and move to Colorado or blow my brains out,” Sneed, 36, said. “I thought to myself, I would try the Colorado thing. If it doesn’t work out, I can always blow my brains out later.”
The next day, he moved to Fort Collins and enrolled at Colorado State University to study psychology.
Today, Sneed is months away from graduating with his bachelor’s degree and has already been accepted to his graduate program to study addiction counseling. He is also in the beginning stages of opening a non-profit treatment program to assist veterans with trauma-related issues. But his path to success was not always easy.
Sneed joined the military on Sept. 1, 2001, less than two weeks before the terrorist attack 9/11 occurred.
“Our entire mindset from that point forward was that we are going to be in combat,” Sneed said. “My basic experience in the military was deployed.”
For the next 10 years, he served in the Army as a staff sergeant and combat correspondent. He was stationed in Hawaii and was deployed for roughly four years in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I did photo and video journalism,” Sneed said. “My job was mainly to document, from start to finish, the mission.”
Sneed created journalistic video packages for distribution, but for the most part, his documentations served evidentiary purposes.
“We have to follow the Law of Armed Conflict, which basically governs what we can and cannot do,” Sneed said. “As video and photojournalists, we have tangible evidence of what happened.”
His first mission was to secure polling sights in Iraq before an election in which al-Qaeda threatened to kill all participating voters.
“Voting didn’t start until 8 or 9 a.m. on voting day, and at 6 a.m., al-Qaeda started mortaring all of the polling sights across the country,” Sneed said.
On that day, Sneed realized he might not come home.
“It wasn’t a bad thing,” Sneed said. “It was just one of those things that kind of hits you. It’s like a realization that this is war. And you get over that. Well, you accept it. You just do your job.”
After completing multiple dangerous missions, including combat patrols and landings, Sneed medically retired in July 2011. He was injured in an improvised explosive device outside of Baghdad. Sneed sustained compression injuries and nerve damage in his back and was diagnosed with Traumatic Brain Injury and chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Sneed said he did not anticipate his diagnoses.
“I was totally and completely fine,” Sneed said. “It takes about three days to get from Iraq back stateside. And the whole time, you’re just fine. I flew back to Hawaii, and when I got
there, my boss picked me up and took me to get my truck out of storage. I don’t remember much else after that.”
The next thing Sneed remembers is the coastguard rescuing him from the middle of the ocean at midnight.
“I swam about a mile and a half out,” Sneed said. “Apparently, I thought insurgents were chasing me. There was no denying that something had changed. I didn’t know I had PTSD because when you’re over there, it’s normal. Everything is trying to kill you. I wasn’t paranoid. I wasn’t depressed. I wasn’t angry. It was just normal.”
Sneed was ordered to receive mental health assistance in the form of therapy. He refers to his recovery as “ongoing” because he still visits his psychologist regularly. But in the beginning, Sneed’s heavy drug use interrupted his recovery.
“For my first two years of treatment, I was doing drugs and psychology, and the one interfered with the other,” Sneed said. “I didn’t want to be in pain, and I would do anything to not feel this way.”
Living near Waikiki Beach, Hawaii, Sneed said he had access to any drug he wanted.
“I think I was looking for marijuana one time, and this guy didn’t have it, but he had meth,” Sneed said. “So, I tried meth. Went down that road. It would be easier for me to name the drugs that I didn’t do.”
Sneed moved back to his hometown in Louisiana, but the addiction and physical manifestation of his PTSD followed.
“PTSD is an evil thing,” Sneed said. “You don’t care about things you should care about. Personal hygiene is one of the first things to go. There was literal trash piled up in my house because I wouldn’t go outside. You just look around, and it’s like, how did this happen? I was just done.”
When Sneed was sitting on his living room floor, revolver by his side, he said it was as if a switch flipped in his mind, and he never returned to his former self.
“I’m a pretty hardheaded, stubborn human being,” Sneed said. “Anger at myself is very motivating for me, and that’s what happened. I got mad at myself because I was a staff sergeant in the military. I’m stronger than that. I literally packed everything up and moved to Colorado the next day. There was no messing around.”
Sneed drove to Fort Collins in a used Suburban with 370,000 miles on it. He chose CSU for its acclaimed veteran affair services. When he arrived in Fort Collins, Sneed had no money, and for the first two months of attending CSU, he lived out of his car with his service pit bull named Dakota.
“Seeing him and Dakota on campus working through life’s barriers and helping others to also climb over them gives me hope,” said Lucy Troup, one of Sneed’s psychology professors at CSU who holds a doctorate in cognitive neuroscience. “Morgan is one of the most compelling students I have had in my class. His enthusiasm, his positivity after all he has endured, is truly inspirational.”
Sneed attributes his academic success to CSU’s Adult Learner and Veteran Services office. ALVS Program Coordinator and SALUTE Veterans National Honor Society Manager of Operations and Finance, Tim Weddington, said Sneed was struggling with social and academic interactions when they first met in early 2015.
“While he is a very intelligent person, Morgan’s academic progress was significantly impacted, and he was considering withdrawing from CSU,” Weddington said. “…The effects of PTSD were creating a basic obstacle: he could not consistently visit campus and interact comfortably with students, staff and faculty.”
Weddington said ALVS connected Sneed with resources like Veterans Integration to Academic Leadership, which improved his grades, relationships and social interactions.
“It is a distinct pleasure to know Morgan, watch him grow and call him my friend,” Weddington said. “He is a person of integrity with determination to help those who struggle as much he has.”
Sneed’s next step is opening a treatment program in the mountains with an emphasis on community integration. This program will target veterans with PTSD, trauma and substance abuse. Sneed is currently working with a lawyer to set up a non-profit organization that the program will be based on and looking at a 97-acre property near Walden, Colorado, as a potential location. He plans to have the program fully functioning in the next three years.
“Most treatment facilities take people out of their environment and put them in a safe, secluded environment,” Sneed said. “When they leave, everything they left is still sitting there. It was true for me, and it will be true for everybody else. We are still going to take them out of their environment, but rather than having them isolated in that environment, we are going to invite the community in.”
Sneed plans to accomplish this by implementing activities led by people outside of the program including service dog trainings, cooking classes, equine therapy and the teaching of eastern philosophies about mindfulness and meditation.
“I want to take the pieces that have worked for me, and new emerging stuff in the field, and put them all together into a cohesive treatment program,” Sneed said.
Eileen Connell, who holds a doctorate in sociology, was Sneed’s professor at CSU two years ago. Connell has kept in touch with Sneed since he completed her class, and she believes he will use his passion for self-discovery to help others.
“Morgan is so personally driven to find himself, but it’s even more than that; it’s to find his core,” Connell said. “It’s in there, and he knows it. I think he is really the strongest person I know. He has that fire to find his center, and he wants to turn around and help others who are lost.”
Sneed said the obstacles he faced ultimately proved to be beneficial, providing him with the knowledge to assist others in their recovery.
“I turned to drugs and alcohol, and I was homeless,” Sneed said. “I was all of these things, and I don’t want others to have to go through that. If there is something I can do about it, then I think I have a responsibility to do it.”
Go to alvs.colostate.edu to learn more about CSU’s student veteran services.
Collegian Arts and Culture Director Randi Mattox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @randi_mattox.