When Joe Quinn was a senior at West Point Military Academy in 2001, his goals consisted of starting on the school’s basketball team and acing his fitness test.
But that all changed on September 11.
“It’s amazing how immediately all of those things became so trivial,” Quinn, 38, tells PEOPLE. “All that stuff went out the window.”
Quinn’s 23-year-old brother, James, worked at Cantor Fitzgerald and was killed with 648 of his colleagues in the North Tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11.
“He used to tell people he worked on top of the world,” Quinn says of his brother. “The towers collapsed and everything changed. They never found his remains. He was the middle child, but he was kind of the glue in the family.”
Quinn ended up serving six years in the United States Army, and was deployed to Iraq twice. It was during those years at war that Quinn says his “invisible wounds” began to manifest.
“I got back home and I was constantly around veterans who had the same story,” says Quinn, who lives in New York City with his wife and two children. “I wasn’t sleeping. In the military, we are taught to throw dirt on things and keep moving forward, which is necessary in combat.”
But mentally, he says, he was dealing with a lot of survivor’s guilt and shame.
“I felt I wasn’t there for my brother and I wasn’t there for my soldiers and colleagues who were killed,” he says.
It was then that Quinn decided to go to Headstrong, an organization that gives free mental health help to post-9/11 veterans.
“I talked to my wife and I decided that I was going to be strong and brave enough to actually ask for help,” he says, adding that he knew many other veterans going through the same thing.
“Rather than confronting our own trauma and loss, we kept throwing dirt on it, moving on and trying to serve others,” he continues. “But at a certain point it kind of came to a head and we had to take care of ourselves first before we could take care of our families.”
After just one therapy session, Quinn says he immediately felt a sense of relief — and decided he wanted to help other veterans get the help they needed.
“PTSD, survivor’s guilt and depression is 100 percent treatable,” he says. “People have this visual — like a veteran comes home from war and he’s okay because he has a family and a good job. But invisible wounds take time. You could have them right away, or five or six years down the line.”
He adds: “Make no mistake. We are at the very beginning of the invisible wounds war. It’s a major battle.”
Quinn is now the executive director at Headstrong and has helped the organization grow around the country. In six years they have grown from having one veteran to 750 in 20 different cities around the country.
“We have so many success stories,” says Quinn. “And it’s not just about the veteran. This is also about the family. You’re helping the family for generations to come.”