A second chance at life
By MELODY KARPINSKI / Santa Rosa Correspondent
The gun went off.
Sean Dougherty stared at the hole in the wall in shock, realizing he’d received a second chance at life.
“I was seconds away from pulling the trigger to end my life,” said Dougherty. “I had been in this place a number of times where I just said ‘I’m done with life.’ When the gun went off and I shot the wall, scaring myself, it snapped me back into reality.”
Dougherty, 35, is a journalism student at Santa Rosa Junior College. Born and raised in Sonoma County, the Army veteran returned home from Afghanistan with wounds that transcended his 10-month deployment.
“You see the most evil things in war that you can see in life,” said Dougherty. “War brings out the absolute worst in people, and at the same time it brings out the absolute best in others.”
No stranger to difficult situations, Dougherty grew up in Rohnert Park in a childhood filled with them.
“From the outside, it would really appear that we had a good family life,” Dougherty said. “But the inside was anything but that.”
His father was an abusive alcoholic, and his mother, a devout Christian, struggled to keep the family together. When Dougherty was four, the family suffered the loss of his younger brother to Zellweger’s disease. “The loss of my younger brother really decimated my family,” Dougherty said. It was a loss that took years to recover from.
Dougherty started out at Novato High his freshman year. He joined the football team, following the footsteps of his father who had also played for Novato. During high school, Dougherty began to run with the wrong crowd. His parents’ marriage began to dissolve, and drugs entered his life.
“I had a lot of promise, but I threw it out,” said Dougherty. “I had a lot of expectations that I never lived up to.”
After getting kicked out of high school for drug use, Dougherty found a job through a friend selling cars at a local dealership. He excelled at his work, pulling in enough money to both pay the bills and feed his growing drug habit.
“It was like that old commercial: ‘I do cocaine so I can go to work so I can make money so I can pay for cocaine,’” said Dougherty. “It was just that kind of cycle.”
He began dating a girl he did cocaine with, a tempestuous relationship that would last for almost six years. His girlfriend got pregnant, and Dougherty took a new job offer at a mortgage company. Eight months after the baby was born, Dougherty discovered the child wasn’t his.
“That was one of the worst things I’ve ever gone through in my life,” said Dougherty. “It was right up there with my brother passing away, because it was a really hard situation for me to deal with.”
The economy began to take a turn, and Dougherty struggled to deal with the loss of the child he thought was his own. Desperate to leave town, he started looking for a way out. “So I made the most logical decision that any human being could make at that point in time -I joined the Army in the middle of a war,” said Dougherty. “I thought that there’s no better way that I could get far away from here.”
Far away started out close by. After joining the military in 2007, he became a combat engineer assigned to the National Guard base on the edge of SRJC’s campus. He briefly moved back in with his father to help him out, but eventually their differences over his alcoholism became too much.
“Anyone with an alcoholic parent knows there’s an event that happens that will cause you to make a decision about whether to be in your parent’s life anymore,” Dougherty said. “That event happened, and it ultimately caused me to volunteer to go to Afghanistan.”
The decision came fraught with challenges. His ticket overseas was nearly derailed by a bout with MRSA, but he convinced his superiors to refrain from kicking him off the deployment.
Upon arrival in Afghanistan, friction with his unit caused him to request a transfer. After transferring to a new unit, Dougherty found the unbroken family he was looking for.
“From day one it was like I had found my long lost family who loved and cared for me right off the bat, and I got to spend nearly a year with these guys,” said Dougherty. “It was like a brotherhood, and I finally understood what it was like to have this unbreakable bond with other people.”
Half a world away, Dougherty finally felt at home. Though he didn’t regret his decision to deploy, the physical and emotional costs took their toll on him.
“Like every soldier returning from the war I suffered from PTSD, but mine was more severe than most,” said Dougherty. “I wanted to hurt people, even for something as simple as someone cutting me off on the freeway.”
The lowest point came with the gunshot in the wall. The event caused Dougherty to rethink his second chance at life.
“I had fought in my war and didn’t know what I was going to do. I felt lost again,” said Dougherty. “I needed to find something occupy my time, so what’s the best thing to do when your suicidal? Go to college.”
Dougherty started classes at SRJC in the spring of 2011. A sports fanatic, he decided to try his hand in the journalism program. The first semester, his temper got him kicked out of classes often. He ended up in front of the dean, and found himself scrambling to stay in line.
“When Sean first came to my class he had recently returned from Afghanistan and was angry, outspoken and recovering from injuries,” said Anne Belden, a journalism professor at SRJC who Dougherty credits with helping him focus. “But he connected with journalism and sports reporting and started rebuilding his life.”
His love of sports and newfound education began to get his creative juices rolling. His second semester, Dougherty joined the staff of SRJC’s student newspaper the Oak Leaf and created an online sports show called the Oak Leaf Sport Report.
“I wanted to do something no one else had done,” said Dougherty. “The first semester it was horrible, (and) I had no idea what I was doing.”
Dougherty believes the show marked another turning point for him. “I had a purpose again,” said Dougherty. “So I just started putting all of my energy into it and began to get better and better.”
Over the past year, Dougherty interviewed SRJC President Frank Chong on the show, along with SRJC Athletic Director Jim Forkum. The show has opened up doors for Dougherty, and he now delivers SRJC sports updates on two local radio stations. He recently called his first Bear Cub basketball game, and is active in the Bear Cub Athletic Trust.
“All of this led to a remarkable change from a decision away from jail to complete and total purpose,” said Dougherty. “Everything else kind of melted away.”
Dougherty is on track to graduate with his associate’s degree in the spring, after which he plans to transfer to San Francisco State. He proposed to his girlfriend, Chrissy, last summer and they recently purchased their first home.
“Sean’s come so far. He’s still outspoken, but he’s not getting kicked out of class,” said Belden. “He’s engaged and excited about life.”
Dougherty plans to pursue broadcast journalism at SFSU, and hopes to find an anchor job in the Bay Area. “My main goal is to be on television on one of the San Francisco stations talking about sports,” said Dougherty. “I’ll achieve that goal some day.”
Along the way Dougherty hopes to encourage other people encountering life struggles.
“It’s just one change and one decision away, but you have to remember everything worth fighting for isn’t going to be easy,” said Dougherty. “All of it has to do with no matter how much you want to give up, you just don’t.”