Traumatic brain injury leads MSU student veteran to study neuroscience
MONTANA – Montana State University undergraduate Zach Mayne dreamed of defending his country from an early age, and so, for him, there was never a question that joining the military was in his future.
Mayne grew up in Thornton, Colorado, and went straight to basic training after high school graduation in 2012. He followed that with the Ranger Assessment and Selection Program, and by age 19, he was a member of the U.S. Army’s 3rd Ranger Battalion stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia.
But Mayne’s life changed drastically during his third deployment to Afghanistan in 2016, when a friendly fire incident resulted in a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The changes in his brain may have ended his military career, but they also led Mayne to a new passion: neuroscience. Now in his first semester at Montana State University, he is a sophomore transfer student majoring in cell biology and neuroscience in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the College of Letters and Science.
Today, Mayne is nonchalant when asked about the injuries that led to a pair of Purple Heart medals. The first medal was the result of a suicide bomber.
“I was blown up,” he said simply. Mayne was concussed, but he was out on another mission a few weeks later. Others in the platoon were not so lucky. Mayne’s second injury was more serious. He was fighting from a rooftop, crouched behind a short rock wall, when an American Apache helicopter armed with high-explosive, dual-purpose rounds — akin to grenades launched over long distances, according to Mayne — fired 16 rounds in the direction of his squad. One landed directly in front of Mayne, just on the other side of the wall, which absorbed much of the explosion. Mayne said it probably saved his life.
Mayne’s first thought was he had been shot. He was disoriented and blind in his right eye, yet the troops were still in the midst of a large daylight engagement. Mayne remembers telling himself that even though he was technically a casualty, no one would have to carry him away and he wouldn’t be a burden on the platoon. He was disarmed but able to make his own way to safety.
“My wounds had healed quickly, it seemed,” he wrote in a guest column for special operations news site SOFREP in February 2018. “The sight had returned to my right eye within hours of being blinded, and the shrapnel lodged in my cornea was easily removed. The pinholes that dotted my right leg hadn’t caused compartment syndrome and my limp was gone within a few weeks.”
Some wounds, however, didn’t mend so easily. Back in Georgia, Mayne completed most of the next training cycle, fighting migraines and insomnia while attempting to balance his duties and appointments with the traumatic brain injury clinic. He was so anxious at times he would throw up. He felt stuck. A perfectionist soldier who prided himself on performing at the highest level, he found himself barely able to complete tasks that should have been routine. He could feel the anger building inside.
“The invisible injury was drastically changing how I felt and how I thought,” Mayne said.
Before the injury, Mayne had been considering leaving the Army, possibly for a career in medicine after his interest was sparked by a crash course in trauma medicine. But seemingly endless rehabilitation, including a five-week stint in an inpatient brain injury clinic and a string of mental and physical therapists, neurologists and endocrinologists left him fascinated by his own injury and the workings of the brain itself.
“I started to get a sense of how interconnected the brain and body are,” Mayne said.
In addition to pursuing a degree in neuroscience at MSU, Mayne started working as a lab assistant in MSU associate professor Christa Merzdorf’s lab in October. The lab studies the development of the nervous system.
“The more I get into it, the more I’m sure that researching is the route I want to go,” Mayne said. “I really enjoy trying to understand concepts at different levels, why things work the way they do.”
On campus, Mayne is vice president of the student veteran club. He has been supported by the Sentinels of Freedom, a program that helps wounded veterans transition from the military to college and beyond. According to Joseph Schumacher, director of Veteran Services at MSU, two other student vets have followed his example into the program.
“When you take off the uniform and you trade it in for a backpack, that sense of service and giving back doesn’t go away,” Schumacher said. “That spirit was really apparent when I met Zach.”
Now, more than two years after his medical retirement, Mayne is determined to tell his story. Opening up is not always comfortable, but Mayne has learned the importance of getting help for injuries that others may not be able to see.
“One of the big things that a lot of veterans get sucked into is not feeling like they should talk about their experiences,” Mayne said. “Being able to talk about these things helps with the healing process.”