Vets Share Heartbreak, Hope in Confronting Brain Injuries
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colo., Apr. 4, 2013 Heads nodded in understanding, voices choked up, tears flowed and laughter occasionally rippled through the room as a group of veterans gathered to bare their souls about the challenges of living with traumatic brain injuries and to encourage each other on.
Former Army Sgt. Anthony Rovertoni, who suffered a traumatic brain injury after returning from a deployment to Iraq in 2007, center, said the camaraderie he has received at the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic at Snowmass Village, Colo., will stay with him long after he returns home to St. Louis. Joining Rovertoni are former Army Spc. Dana Hall, right, a nurse who deployed with him and is serving as his caregiver during the event, and Jean Ferguson, his recreational therapist at the Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care System. DOD photo by Donna Miles
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The informal session has become a regular offering during the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic. It’s hosted by retired Army Pfc. Chris Lynch, who fell 26 feet and landed directly on his head while attending a French commando school in 2000, and his mother Cheryl, founder of the nonprofit American Veterans with Brain Injuries organization.
The 27th annual winter sports clinic, being held here this week, brings together almost 400 disabled veterans, a significant number of them, like Lynch, suffering what has come to be known as the “invisible wounds” of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.
For many, the chance to bond with fellow veterans who have walked in their same shoes and are experiencing many of the same effects is a highlight of the annual event.
“To be with this group -- one of the only places where we don’t have to explain things to people, that’s huge for us,” the husband of a Coast Guard veteran with TBI said at the support group session. “What we get from this isn’t about the couple of hours we spend here. It’s about our whole year, and our whole lives.”
Passing a kitchen timer around the room, each of about 40 veterans in the room and a few spouses who accompanied them took five minutes to share their stories. Several of the group members were victims of roadside bombs, mortars and other explosives during combat operations that have taken a toll on their brains as well as their bodies.
Even with Kevlar helmets, there’s a critical organ this protective gear simply doesn’t adequately protect: the gelatin-like material that can shift violently inside the skull when confronted by explosions, sudden jolts or shock waves from blasts.
“When they explode, your skull gets pounded against your Kevlar [helmet],” Lynch said. “Your brain gets tossed around like an egg in a bucket of water.”
One Army veteran in the group got his TBI when a suicide bomber detonated near him during the troop surge in Iraq. A Marine veteran got his when he was hit by an improvised explosive device during his third deployment to Iraq. Another has no recollection of the grenade blast that inflicted his brain injury, and he hasn’t been able to bring himself to watch a video of the attack posted on YouTube.
A first-time participant in the winter sports clinic, severely wounded in Afghanistan, broke down into tears before she could fully explain exactly what had happened to her. “This is overwhelming for me,” she told the group through her sobs. “I run out of words.”
Many of the group members’ TBIs weren’t from combat -- just unfortunate and unanticipated circumstances that changed their lives forever: The cerebral aneurysm that struck a U.S. Military Academy graduate just three weeks after leaving West Point, N.Y. The black ice that sent an airman’s car into a tailspin when she was driving home from her night shift while stationed in Germany. The gravel patch on a switchback turn in Turkey that sent a soldier’s vehicle careening down a 230-foot cliff while he was returning from leave.
Regardless of how they got their TBIs, how long ago, or how severe their symptoms, the veterans all shared something deeply personal. They knew the frustration of having to relearn basic skills that once were automatic, of struggling to comprehend what once had come so easily.
Others say they struggle to keep their emotions in check. “It’s hard not to cry at everything,” one admitted.
One veteran told the group he actually was relieved to get a diagnosis of TBI, because it helped to explain the nightmares he was having and voices he was hearing. “I was relieved to learn I wasn’t crazy,” he said.
Compounding their personal frustrations, many of the veterans shared anger and hurt at how quickly people judge them despite having no idea what they are going through. “People just don’t ‘get’ TBI, because our injuries are hidden,” one lamented.
As a result, some veterans with TBI are mistaken for drunks, and one told the group he even landed in jail over it when he hadn’t taken a sip.
A veteran wounded by a grenade blast in Afghanistan said how humiliated he feels when a waiter stands impatiently waiting for his order, not realizing how hard it is for him to read a menu. “I know what they are thinking: ‘Are you dumb?’” he said. “People don’t understand why I stutter. There’s so much about me they don’t understand.”
Many don’t understand, for example, that people with TBI have good and bad days. One veteran shared his resentment that others -- even his own family members and closest friends -- don’t recognize that, and as a result, accuse him of “faking it” to get over on the system.
All the veterans at the support group receive services through the Veterans Affairs Department. But during the support group meeting, they offered advice that resonated because it comes from firsthand experience.
The veterans reminded each other of the importance of deliberately challenging their brains as well as their bodies to keep them strong and of engaging with other people and staying active.
“I don’t stay home feeling sorry for myself,” one told the group, describing his regimen of cardiovascular and weight training. “You have to get out and do something,” agreed Lynch. “If you don’t use it, you are going to lose it.”
The veterans also encouraged each other to use humor to get them through awkward moments or to diffuse situations before they spin out of control.
For their fellow veterans still coming to grips with how much their lives have changed, those who have learned to live with TBIs offered what they knew was needed most: understanding and support.
“Everybody’s stories have a lot of similarities to them,” said an Army veteran wounded when his helicopter crashed during a night training mission. “But it’s good for us to come together and talk about it. At least we know we are not alone in this world.”
The husband of an Army veteran recently wounded in Afghanistan shared his sense of helplessness over not being able to use his extensive medevac training to help his own wife. “I helped people who were hurt all over the world, and I was good at it,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion. “But all that training and all that experience taught me nothing about supporting someone with TBI.”
When he told the group how frustrated and alone he felt, another husband of a TBI patient assured him that things would get better. “When I see you and your wife, that’s exactly where we were a year ago,” he said, his own eyes filling with tears. “And let me tell you, you aren’t alone. We are here for you.”
Heads nodded in agreement around the room, with every veteran telling him that they, too, would provide the support he needs.
Another first-timer at the winter sports clinic said the network she has discovered in her fellow veterans has been a huge boost to her self-esteem. “The people here are the same as I am. We understand each other -- what we can and can’t do and why we sometimes feel so weird,” she said. “I’m overwhelmed at the generosity and camaraderie here.”
The former Army captain wounded by the suicide bomber in Iraq said he’s attended many wounded warrior and veterans events, but none like the winter sports clinic that bring together so many veterans living with TBI. “I feel at home here, and I get to learn from veterans from all generations,” he told the group. “This is one of the most enjoyable things I do.”
“I know we all have different stories and different issues,” said a Navy veteran who has lived with his brain injury since a 1986 car crash. “But when I come here, getting to see people in their different stages [of TBI], all pushing through it and reaching out to each other, I get motivated.”
That motivation, Lynch said, will help sustain the veterans long after they return home from the winter sports clinic. “This week is just the start,” he said. “This week will make the rest of your life a whole lot better.”
Lynch gave each participant a medical alert bracelet that identifies their TBI, and offered tri-fold credit-card-sized identity cards they can give people to explain their condition and ask for help or patience when they need it. Cheryl said the cards, provided free through the American Veterans with Brain Injuries organization, have proven to be extremely helpful for veterans with TBIs, particularly during stressful times.
She also recommended free services AVBI provides through its website, including a one-year subscription for brain training and a chat room that veterans can use to reach out to each other.
The TBI support group session was just one of myriad activities and sporting events being conducted this week during the 27th annual National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic.
The clinic, co-sponsored by VA and the Disabled American Veterans, is open to U.S. military veterans with disabilities ranging from spinal cord injuries and orthopedic amputations to visual impairment and neurological conditions.
During the six-day program, veterans learn adaptive Alpine and Nordic skiing and are introduced to rock climbing, scuba diving, trapshooting, snowmobiling, sled hockey and other sports and activities.
The goal, VA officials said, is to help participants discover abilities they may have thought they had lost, enhancing their rehabilitation and their quality of life.