This post is part of the “Coming Home” series, profiling members of the military who have successfully transitioned from active duty to civilian lives. “Coming Home” is sponsored by USAA. Read more posts in the series »
Army Sgt. 1st Class Elana Duffy had a sterling career as an intelligence agent for the U.S. Army. She was proficient in counter intelligence and human intelligence. She deployed to Afghanistan. She assisted with Hostage Working Group in Iraq.
Yet her sterling career was punctuated, however briefly in time, by an IED in Iraq. Though she wasn’t badly injured, her headaches persisted. Then worsened.
Eventually, the doctors looking at her MRI told her she needed to be in surgery “like yesterday.”
They’d found a “giant egg of coagulated blood in the middle of my head,” said Duffy. A massive brain bleed, “essentially an aneurysm.”
It was definitely from the IED, but it left a little damage to the vehicle and not a soul injured.
“I got knocked back in the vehicle,” Duffy told BI, adding that she was a little shell-shocked at first. “But I knew where I was, I knew who everybody was around me, so we continued the mission because it didn’t look like anyone was hurt.”
Persistent and worsening migraine headaches eventually tipped doctors. She had her surgery, but as a result, she was no longer fit for duty. An Army medical board retired her in 2012.
Worse yet, she would come to find out her injury had other symptoms.
As a former intelligence agent and a certified interrogator, Duffy left the Army hoping to get a job with law enforcement agencies like the FBI, Army Criminal Investigative Division, and the U.S. Marshals service.
She even held a masters degree in industrial engineering from Cornell, earned by the age of 22, prior to her enlistment in the Army.
Despite her qualifications, recruiters only seemed to see the surgery.
Army CID agreed to hire her, but furloughs delayed her employment. The U.S. Marshals took her through the whole employment process, only to disqualify her at the very end.
“They were worried about keeping me near a medical facility,” said Duffy. The FBI indicated she would run into the same trouble with them.
In the meantime, Duffy, who had moved to New York City, joined a nonprofit group of veterans called Team Rubicon.
The organisation travels the world providing disaster relief to areas stricken by weather or geological anomalies, like Haiti following the deadly quake, or the victims in the northeast U.S. following Hurricane Sandy.
Duffy had provided intelligence to inform combat operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq, but her job was more than that, it included mapping the human landscape in certain areas.
In counterinsurgency operations, finding the motivation of people is important to helping them.
“I loved what I did, effecting change, find some way to pull someone off the street, off the dirt road so to speak, do something I knew was saving lives or helping out,” said Duffy of her time at war.
In that way, Team Rubicon seemed a natural fit.
Within a month of joining, disaster struck Oklahoma in the form of a 2-mile wide tornado.
Duffy was part of a team dispatched to help the survivors recover.
“There were whole neighborhoods wiped out,” Duffy recalled.
She remembered being amazed by the will of the people who had lost everything.
“People out there had such a great perspective. They were obviously upset. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to go through,” said Duffy.
She said most of the victims were very levelheaded despite losing their homes.
“They were like, ‘I live in Oklahoma, sooner or later a tornado could hit my house … this time I think I’ll build a one story and make it handicap accessible, for my father who is getting older,'” said Duffy.
Their resilience must have rubbed off, because Duffy found herself talking to another team member about her own personal fate, where she would end up if she couldn’t do law enforcement.
“I was sitting there with a good friend, and he asked I was trying to stay in investigative work,” recalled Duffy. “‘It seems like it makes you angry, he said, ‘like it raises your stress level. But when you talk about music or other things, you’re without that anger.'”
“Took a little self reflection, and I finally realised that there are other things out there that I’m satisfied to do. Music, writing more, or helping people out through disaster response. Couple different avenues,” said Duffy.
Now that FEMA has awarded New York City funds for the damages from Hurricane Sandy, Duffy is consulting for the distribution of those funds.
She’s also enrolled in an undergraduate economics course in order to gain some new expertise.
Because of her retirement pay from the Army and wise investments during her career, she doesn’t necessarily have to take “the first thing that comes along.”
Though she’s exploring options, she hopes to break into music.
“I know it’s a tough industry to get into, but music is kind of my thing,” she said. She wants to get into the distribution side.
She’s hoping to work with tech development somewhere like Pandora, iTunes, or YouTube.
“The record labels could use some improvement too, given how slow they were catching up with digital trends,” said Duffy.
She still talks to medical professionals regularly. They tell her she seems incredibly “well-adjusted.”
“You know, when I realised I wasn’t going to be an investigator [in law enforcement], it was really a back to the drawing board period of my life,” said Duffy, “It took a little self-reflection — there was really nothing I could do about it — and I finally realised that there are other things out there that I’m satisfied to do.”
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