Tony Doyle has been to Baghdad and back. He’s been under fire,
pinned beneath a toppled Humvee and medicated with morphine to numb the pain
of a mangled left leg. He’s been through amputation and post-traumatic stress disorder,
through traumatic brain injury and a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,
and through a divorce.
And now? Now he’s sitting in a wheelchair at his living room table, two earrings in his
left lobe, tattoos up one arm and down his remaining leg, and talking about the good life,
about a new life. College student.
A 31-year-old veteran of the Iraq War, Doyle is
pursuing a history degree at UTSA. At first, he
wanted a bachelor’s to teach high school. But
then his dream got bigger. “I want to go all the
way up to the Ph.D. level,” he said. “I want to be a college
In one respect, Doyle is the face of the nontraditional
college student. But he also represents a surging trend.
From 2007 to 2009, the number of freshmen receiving veteran
educational benefits at UTSA increased more than 100
percent. In 2011, there were 2,690 student veterans and their
dependents receiving educational benefits, a 65 percent increase
from 2009. University officials expect the growth to
One reason: UTSA provides an impressive range of services
for student veterans, from counseling for war-related
issues to assistance with employment. The university also
helps with securing military benefits. But there’s another
reason for the high numbers—the university recruits from
local military installations.
“We are doing outreach to veterans because we feel we
have a lot to offer them at UTSA,” said Lisa Firmin, associate
provost for faculty and student diversity. “I think we are establishing
ourselves as a military-friendly school.”
With these students come unique challenges. Doyle, a
junior who hopes to graduate in December 2012, brings the
benefit of financial aid from the U.S. Army, the experience
of world travel (he has served in South Korea and Iraq), the
perspective of fatherhood (he has four children) and the
wisdom of age. But then there is the PTSD. The traumatic
brain injury. The ADHD.
“It’s very, very difficult, especially when it comes to pursuing
a degree in history,” Doyle said. “There is so much you
have to read, so much you have to write.”
One challenge, he explains, centers on written expression:
the process of forming ideas, turning them into words
and putting them on paper without his mind wandering. In
one sense, that’s classic ADHD. But Doyle’s struggle is compounded
by the brain injury suffered during a bomb blast.
The symptoms: memory loss, poor concentration, slow information
“So I guess that makes me a computer from the ’90s,” he
said, smiling. “My sense of humor was not at all affected.”
The slightest thing can distract Doyle from studying. A
bug on the floor. A random thought. Frequent distractions
occur when Doyle and his wife, Melissa, speak.
Doyle’s mind can be a pinball machine, thoughts bouncing
here, ricocheting there, careening everywhere. But he
finds a way to harness them, redirect them, bring them into
order. He may take twice as long to write a paper as his wife,
an online student at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock,
but the result, she said, is twice as good.
“His writing is exceptional,” Melissa Doyle said.
Once a C and D high school student in Jacksonville, Ill.,
Doyle carries a 3.3 GPA at UTSA. He made the President’s List
over the summer with a 4.0.
“That’s not surprising,” said Will Dawson, a veteran of
the Army and a UTSA graduate student who is president of
the university’s Student Veterans Association. “A lot of veterans
do better at the university than they did in high school.
They are focused on a goal. And quite frankly, that goal is
to go back into the civilian world and put themselves in a
better position than they were in before. I just barely made it
through high school with a 2.2 grade point average. I graduated
from UTSA with a 3.9.”
Success in the classroom has enhanced Doyle’s outlook.
“He’s always in bright spirits,” said Michael Huebner,
a 33-year-old business management major and veteran who
suffered a serious knee injury in Afghanistan. “He’s a role
model, a big inspiration. I’m a disabled veteran but not to
the extent he is. I’m not sure I’d be as positive if I were in his
Doyle’s wife is another reason for his optimism. They met
in a sports bar in North Little Rock, Ark., in 2005. She was a
waitress; he was a patron from Camp Robinson across the
street. Doyle stopped in every day for two weeks. Romance
blossomed. “It was a fairy-tale relationship,” Melissa Doyle
They began talking marriage after Doyle left for Fort
Stewart, Ga., the largest Army installation east of the Mississippi
River. From Fort Stewart, he went to Kuwait. A tour in
Iraq began in June 2005. His duties included working a “presence
patrol” on the outskirts of Baghdad. In a Humvee, he
rode through the streets to deter insurgent activity.
Danger lurked on the road. The enemy often hid improvised
explosive devices in unexpected places. In the carcass
of an animal, for example. Or inside an empty can.
On the morning of Aug. 9, 2005, Doyle rode in patrol in the
lead vehicle. A soldier in his Humvee spotted a suspicious
object beside the road and yelled, “Look out! Look out!”
An explosion followed. The Humvee flipped. The door
latch broke in the rollover. Doyle lost consciousness and was
ejected. The Humvee landed on his left leg, pinning him to
the ground. He awoke a short time later to excruciating pain.
“I would say the adrenaline was pumping at the max,” he
said. “The first thing I did was look for my weapon.”
He noticed fellow soldiers setting up a 360-degree perimeter
with Bradley Fighting Vehicles. The show of force
calmed him a bit.
“I saw the doc heading for me so I pulled out a smoke, put
it in my mouth and prepared to light it,” he said. “When the
doc got to me, he slapped it out and proceeded to tell me I
could not have it because he was going to give me morphine.
“He got to work digging a space under my leg and the
Humvee to put a tourniquet on to stop the bleeding. As he
was doing that, some other guys were digging near my leg to
help relieve some of the pressure. At one point, they stopped
One soldier asked, “Why did you stop?”
The reply: “We can’t tell what’s his leg and what’s the
The IED had detonated between the vehicles. Only one
soldier was injured: Doyle. The single blast was all the enemy
delivered that morning. “I never looked at my leg,” he said,
“because I knew if I did it would throw me into shock, which
kills just as easy as a bomb.”
Forty-five minutes after the explosion, a medevac helicopter
arrived to carry Doyle to a hospital in Balad, almost 50
miles away. “I do not know why,” he said, “but as I was being
loaded onto the medevac, I gave a thumbs up, as if I had
been injured on a football field.”
He awoke in a recovery tent. The only other person in
sight was a nurse on desk duty. “I looked around and realized
my left leg was gone,” he said. “I am not sure how to
explain that feeling except for very lonely. It was the most
horrible feeling I have ever had. I got the nurse’s attention
and tried to figure out what was going on. Was I dreaming or
not? I wasn’t. It was all true.”
By the time he called his girlfriend to tell her the news,
she already knew. An officer had explained the amputation
simply: “The leg was mangled, like a crushed piece of paper.”
Sgt. Doyle came home sooner than expected. He
and Melissa married in 2006 and blended two families. He
has two children from a previous marriage; she has one. Together,
they have an infant.
He started thinking about college two years into the marriage.
While dining with his wife at a Japanese restaurant,
Doyle struck up a conversation with an architect.
“You go to school and complete your degree in drafting
and design,” the architect said, “and I’ll have a job waiting
The idea ended quickly. Doyle took a computer drafting
course online at Pulasky Technical College and struggled.
“It wasn’t working well for me in the memory department,”
He completed two years of general education. After deciding
to pursue history, Doyle enrolled at UTSA in spring
2011 on the recommendation of a friend from church. And
he’s found his passion.
The passion comes, in part, from his love for history, and
from having participated in a major historical event—the
Iraq War. “What really drives me to study,” he said, “is I see a
lot of history repeating itself.”
He also is driven to please an agriculture teacher from
high school, Jim Rahe, a man who became a close mentor
after Doyle’s mother died. “He kicked my butt to get me
through school,” Doyle said. “He was always telling me, ‘You
can do better than this. There’s no reason you should be a
They remain close. Rahe and his wife attended Doyle’s
wedding. When Doyle returns to Illinois, he and Melissa visit
Rahe’s family. “I didn’t believe I could change myself for the
better,” Doyle said. “He did. Proving his point is another big
It’s a long way from Jacksonville, Ill., a long way from
Baghdad. Doyle entered the military right after high school in
1999 and served seven and a half years. The military now pays
for his schooling. It pays for his medical and living expenses.
“Sometimes I wish things had gone differently,” he said,
“but I think about how much more time I have with family.
Things did not turn out badly. I can be home more and not
worry about having to deploy.”
If not for the military and his tours abroad, it’s not likely
Doyle would be in college, working to become a professor.
He hopes to instill in his students a love of history, to impart
more than facts from a text.
He also wants to open his life like a book and reveal his
firsthand experience from the trenches of war.