The original version of this article contained multiple errors and has been changed. See the bottom of this article for more information.
Fourth-year anthropology student Shann Dornhecker remembers standing in her apartment sobbing because she couldn’t find her keys. Other days, she would have sudden angry outbursts or be startled by loud noises.
It wasn’t until she began attending therapy that she said she realized post-traumatic stress disorder was at the root of her emotional distress. She learned she had developed PTSD after serving six years in the military.
“There is something wrong, and that’s okay because it isn’t your fault,” her therapist told her.
After hearing those words from her therapist, Dornhecker said she stopped blaming herself for the hardships she endured. Dornhecker said that one way she is trying to move forward from her past experiences is by creating a mobile application to aid in research and starting her own business.
Dornhecker, who has been attending UCLA since September 2013, recently created and submitted a data-gathering mobile application to the IBM SmartCamp contest. The contest provides mentoring and networking opportunities to participants who compete for the title of IBM Global Entrepreneur of the Year.
Dornhecker’s app, Drago Data, primarily allows researchers in areas without wireless internet to log data, photos and video into the app while they are out in the field. The app aims to reduce the time spent transferring data from paper to a computer.
In addition to participating in IBM’s contest, Dornhecker is in the process of modifying the app for the Navy’s use in cataloguing rock engravings at China Lake in the Mojave Desert.
Dornhecker, who has always been interested in data, began her career as a Navy cryptologist during the first Iraq War.
During her time in the Navy, however, she said she was sexually assaulted while on active duty. After serving in the Navy for six years, Dornhecker left the Navy, saying her service took a toll on her physically and mentally.
After leaving the military, she started her own consulting business in Los Angeles in the technology and film industries.
But she said this all changed in 2009 when she said she was sexually assaulted again. The assault caused a brain injury that impaired her short-term memory, organization skills and some of her speech abilities, she said.
“It could take me up to six hours to get ready in the morning because of my impaired function,” Dornhecker said. “Then when I was out of the house I was in a state of panic.”
The injuries, along with her untreated post-traumatic stress disorder, made it difficult for her to work. With these limitations, she eventually lost her business and home.
Dornhecker moved into a homeless shelter in Los Angeles for women veterans, but said she thought the homeless shelter did not provide her the support she needed. The shelter encouraged her to take a job in retail that paid $10 per hour, but Dornhecker decided to pursue an education instead of taking the job. She said that she saw getting an education as her only way out of homelessness.
Dornhecker began to go to cognitive processing therapy offered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which she said gave her the coping abilities she needed to deal with her PTSD. She continues to work with a speech pathologist to help her cope with the effects of her brain injury.
Dornhecker was on the verge of going to Washington, D.C. to stay with friends when she received her acceptance as a transfer to UCLA’s anthropology program.
“I knew what I was capable of. I had to fight to get my education,” Dornhecker said.
It was at UCLA that she began to work on the Drago Data app. She came up with the idea for the app after watching a fellow student spend hours logging data into the computer and thought an app could make the process faster. She worked on the app with Thomas A. Wake, an adjunct professor at the UCLA Cotsen Institute of Archaeology and Skeleton Key, a software development company that helped her with the programming aspect of the app.
OtterBox, a company that produces water and shock-resistant phone cases, donated phone cases for the iPod touches that Dornhecker used to test the app in Panama.
“She’s a very good example of how people can come back from traumatic experiences and build on their life experiences to go back to school and do something productive,” Wake said.
Dornhecker said that the app has the potential to be used for purposes outside of the archaeology field, such as registering voters in new democracies and tracking Ebola patients in countries like Liberia.
“The app has the potential to make data collection in the field much more efficient,” said Kristen Tatti, public relations specialist at OtterBox.
Dornhecker said she hopes that the app will show others that disabled veterans can still contribute to society. She said she knows that her PTSD and injuries will never go away, but that she can still continue to live her life and have a successful career.
“I am living a functional life, creating a business and employing fellow veterans,” Dornhecker said. “It is my chance to start my life over.”
Correction: Dornhecker’s app is named Drago Data. Dornhecker served six years in the military.