Capt. Joe Quinn thought the war would save him. After his older brother Jimmy died in the north tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, Joe was glad he was in a place where he could get revenge: He was in his senior year at West Point, ready to be deployed.
That was the story back home, in Marine Park, Brooklyn, where I grew up with the Quinns. Jimmy was gone, but Joe was going to get the bastards.
It was a clean story, the kind Joe longed for. But early into his first tour, as an artillery officer in the Anbar province, he learned nothing is clean, especially in war.
Joe would serve two more tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Once home, he watched fellow veterans struggle to transition back into communities that were content to hail them as war heroes — the clean story — but couldn’t help with trauma they still carried.
He would refer struggling friends to Headstrong, an organization that tries to cut the red tape many veterans and their families face when seeking mental-health treatment. But in 2015, he walked into the clinician’s office, closed the door, and said, “I have one more veteran to refer.”
Confronting a terrible silence
Joe was the quietest of the three Quinn brothers.
At least, that’s how we knew him, growing up. How could he be anything else? The middle Quinn, Jimmy, who was in my grade at Good Shepherd Catholic School, barely let anyone get in a word edgewise, let alone his little brother.
Jimmy was irrepressible. His laugh could fill a room and get him through any door. A compulsive autograph-seeker, he once schmoozed his way into a Sports Illustrated banquet in Manhattan, where he scored a photo with Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, the legendary basketball coach Dean Smith, and one of the lesser Baldwin brothers.
Jimmy’s dream was to work on Wall Street, and he landed a job on the trade support desk at Cantor Fitzgerald, on the 104th floor of 1 World Trade Center.
In those first awful days after the attacks, the Quinns — Michael Sr. and his wife, Noreen, Michael Jr., and Joe — confronted the terrible silence of Jimmy’s absence, and the pain of an anguished question: “How do we engage life without him?” Joe Quinn asked.
Joe engaged through war, fueled by revenge, but carrying with him a shame as illogical as it was persistent: that he hadn’t been there to help his brother. That we wouldn’t be fighting a war if his brother hadn’t been killed, and his fellow soldiers wouldn’t have died, either.
He married a general’s daughter, Melanie Graham, who shared a similar grief: She had lost brothers, too. Her brother Kevin was an ROTC cadet, afraid to seek the help he needed for his depression because he worried it could affect his military prospects. He died by suicide in 2003. The next year, her oldest brother, Jeffrey, an Army lieutenant, was killed by an IED on a bridge in Iraq, after leading his men out of harm’s way.
“It’s something that brought us together,” Joe said. “But it almost tore us apart.”
A clean story
For a long time, Joe Quinn tried to fit himself into that clean story. He got a master’s degree at the Harvard Kennedy School. He taught at West Point. But it wasn’t until he walked into that clinician’s office in 2015 that he let out a breath he felt he’d been holding for 14 years.
“The thing about trauma and loss and survivor’s guilt is that it compounds over time, whether it’s something from childhood, or the loss of a loved one, or an IED in Iraq,” Joe said.
He and Melanie, who is finishing her nurse practitioner’s degree, have finally given themselves a chance to exhale, to live with the messiness of their stories. “It’s not just about getting back to even,” Joe said. “It’s about becoming a better version of yourself.”
He’s now the executive director of Headstrong. The program expanded to Philadelphia last week. The nonprofit partners with providers, like Council for Relationships in University City, to get veterans free mental-health treatment as soon as they need it. It’s as much about getting the help they need, said Joe Quinn, as it is about dispelling the stigma that keeps veterans from getting it.
Charlie Forshee, of the Veterans Multi-Service Center in Old City, says Headstrong will help treat hard-to-reach veterans — those suspicious of the VA, or ineligible for benefits.
“Those 10 to 15 percent of guys that are bouncing around, and I’m not sure they’re going to make it, I can now get them in touch with a therapist,” he said.
At last week’s event, Joe Quinn thanked the city for welcoming him, and, like any smart Brooklynite, apologized for being a Mets fan. He talked about Jimmy. About how the thought of his big brother, scared in the smoke, still cripples him.
He told the whole story. He hoped it would help other veterans — in Philly, in Marine Park, everywhere — to do the same.