Tom McNabb - Fellow

Jul 22, 2011
Tom McNabb
Tom McNabb - Fellow

As the son of a teacher and a school superintendent, Tom McNabb grew up with high academic expectations. His neighborhood south of Houston – home to many NASA employees – only reinforced those expectations. “You could say someone was a rocket scientist, and you’d probably be right,” McNabb recalls of his high-achieving neighbors.

McNabb wasn’t so interested in science or math though. He read book after book about life in the Army, war stories, and Medal of Honor recipients’ autobiographies. He was fascinated by the tales of self sacrifice, eager to unleash his teenage hyperactivity in the military. In the meantime, he found an outlet in football, track and cross-country running.

The day after he graduated high school, the 19-year-old McNabb enlisted in the Army. Wearing boat shoes and shorts, he showed up for basic training in Kentucky where it was 18 degrees and two feet of snow were on the ground. After the shock of his first winter, the native Texan went on to serve on active duty as a cavalry scout and then in the Texas National Guard as a medic before moving on to the Army Reserves where he attended military intelligence school while working a municipal utility job. Before long though, McNabb returned to full-time civilian life, hoping to devout more time to his wife and children.

McNabb missed the Army camaraderie, and decided to rejoin the Reserves after several years away. He transferred to the National Guard so he could deploy to Iraq in 2005. During his year in a field artillery unit at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, McNabb treated many Iraqis and Americans for gunshot wounds, burns, and other injuries.

Toward the end of his tour, McNabb became a patient himself. After an improvised explosive device (IED) blast, McNabb found himself treating an injured Iraqi while in a moving armored Humvee and under fire. At one point, McNabb had to hold the patient’s stretcher, which didn’t quite fit in the vehicle, while holding closed the 400-pound rear door. The strain badly damaged McNabb’s arm and back. Doctors were shocked by McNabb’s CATscan results. “They said it’s a miracle you’re walking.”

Back stateside, McNabb found the physical healing process to be relatively easy. “The hardest part, to be honest with you, was the TBI.” McNabb’s traumatic brain injury suffered from the IED blast left him struggling to remember basic details in his life. He felt like he was losing his mind.

Over time, McNabb got his TBI symptoms under control. He learned to take careful notes to organize his day-to-day life. After being medically retired from the Army in 2008, McNabb went back to school for a degree in history and political science. When he first heard about the Wounded Warrior Program, McNabb saw it as a chance to combine his burgeoning political interest and vast knowledge of VA processes.  

Working in the Little Rock, Arkansas office of Rep Tim Griffin, McNabb has found a new sense of purpose and influence. “A lot of time, by the time they get to our office, they’ve exhausted every possibility they know of,” he says of veterans who call him for help. “Any time I have a chance to help a veteran, I can’t pass that up.”