In 2003, Vaughn went to the Navy recruiter, ready to join, but not knowing what he wanted to do.
“I had a lot of knowledge about the human body,” said Vaughn. “So at the time I wasn't really good with machines or computers; I was good with people. They're like, 'Ahh, corpsman, corpsman for you.'”
Before graduating Corpsman “A” School, Vaughn and his classmates filled out a dream sheet of commands they wanted to go to after training. Understanding that the majority of corpsman were going to the Marines, he wrote 1st Marine Division. Shortly after, following eight weeks of Field Medical Training at what was then the Field Medical Service School (now known as the Field Medical Battalion), Vaughn received word he was going to 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, which is part of the 1st Marine Division. His new unit deployed to Fallujah in 2004.
“When we got to Iraq . . . we rode on these big track vehicles. As soon as the door dropped, they were shooting at us,” said Vaughn. “It wasn't training anymore — this was real. People are really trying to kill you. Inside, I just froze for a moment . . . and then I don't know how to explain it, but the training just kind of takes over, just kind of muscle memory, and before I knew it, we were rolling.”
A few weeks into the push, Vaughn and a Marine were leaving a courtyard of a house, both holding their weapons in one hand and gripping an insurgent in the other.
“As we were leaving, there was this blast,” said Vaughn. “It threw us forward pretty good, and I saw this Marine had stumbled. I saw his pants torn in the back and he got hit with shrapnel in the back of the leg pretty good.”
Vaughn's initial thought was on his Marine. After dropping the insurgents off, he tended to the Marine's wound. Then Vaughn took care of his own injury.
“I felt me get hit in the back [left] shoulder,” said Vaughn. “I can feel wet going down my arm and I was like, 'Oh man, I don't have time for this,' and I was praying. I took my gear off to deal with my wound, but at the time — there were Marines in Humvees that saw it happen — I can hear all through the Humvees: 'Doc Vaughn has been hit! Doc Vaughn has been hit!'”
His scars, however, would go deeper than he realized at the time. What Vaughn saw in Fallujah became part of him; he still carries it with him today.
“For a long time, I was angry, I was hurt, and I was not the usual me for quite a while,” said Vaughn. “There just came a point in time for me where I just didn't want to continue on like that. So I was willing and open to see what possibilities were there to change.
“The struggle of things is not what is hard for me, what is hard for me is the surrender,” he added. “But understanding it's not waving a white flag like defeat, it's like a humble letting go of the things that aren't serving me well, and sometimes it's just acceptance.”
At the same time, it was difficult to explain what was going through his head; Vaughn needed a way to communicate those thoughts. He turned to something he was familiar with: painting. Growing up, he had watched his mom paint, and started drawing himself. In junior college, he took painting as a creative outlet. He likes oil land and seascapes, abstracts, impressionism and surrealism.
“It's not about painting, it's about getting to communicate and communicating with yourself,” said Vaughn. “So in that moment when I'm painting — it's like the ultimate mindfulness exercise — everything goes away. I'm just there and it's just me with my thoughts and the paint, and I can express those feelings and emotions through it.” He actually paints his emotions. That's how he communicates how he feels.
Vaughn also uses gardening to heal.
“I love being outside, I love to feel the grass, I love to feel the leaves, I love to feel the dirt, the sensations, I love the smell of the air, I love to feel the rain, the sun,” said Vaughn. “It's something I learned growing up and my mom would have me and my brother go outside and plant things, grow things. There are a lot of life lessons in that, planting things and watching them grow and nurturing them. There's a lot of balance to it. As I find the balance in that, it balances me.”
Vaughn currently works at Naval Hospital Bremerton, Washington, at the Substance Abuse Rehabilitation Clinic as a counselor. The same experiences and techniques he used to overcome his own obstacles now help him connect with his patients, and help them get them on the right path.