I would like to thank Stand For The Troops (SFTT) for this opportunity to share a story that is very important to me and to my family. The story is about how we are struggling with the consequences of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS). On its face, this blog is about me, my wife, and our four children. Beyond our story, however, are the stories of thousands of soldiers and their families who are struggling with Traumatic Brain Injuries and Post Traumatic Stress Injuries. Upon examination, I think you will find that our story and their stories are alike in so many ways. If anything, our story features more good fortune than is common in this real-life genre. I think you will find that most are much more tragic than ours. Of course the ending of a story depends on where you stop telling it. I hope that we will not have to write very many more chapters before these contemporary tragedies can become stories of hopes redeemed, dreams re-dreamt, and happiness restored. God knows that the men and woman I had the honor of serving with deserve nothing less.
A note on how I got here: I started to become a soldier in June 1994 at West Point, New York. Six years later– two of which I spent as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints– I was commissioned as an officer in the Armor and Cavalry Branch. A few years later I had the very good fortune of persuading the beautiful, talented, intelligent, charming, and just simply wonderful Farrah Romriell to marry me. Our marriage was a three for one deal that included not only Farrah but also included Ryker, who had just turned five, and Lexyngton, who was three. Eighteen months later we added Addylyn to the family.
In June 2006 I deployed to Iraq from Fort Lewis, Washington, as a part of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division– a Stryker Brigade equipped with the Army’s latest 22-ton, eight-wheeled armored vehicles. I served the first few months as a staff officer until taking command of Bronco Troop, 1st Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment. Cavalry units are traditionally equipped and trained to conduct reconnaissance missions, but in Iraq we generally did the same missions as our sister infantry companies and artillery batteries– getting rid of the bad guys while protecting the good guys.
As the surge was building steam in March 2007, I led the one-hundred men and 17 Strykers that made up Bronco Troop into Baqubah, Iraq, which at the time was the last great bastion of al Qaeda in Iraq. The fighting there was the fiercest any of us had faced. Literally hundreds of IEDs seeded the roads and we found ourselves in daily firefights. Ninety percent of the Troop would hit at least one IED– some many more. My turn came on May 13– Mothers’ Day– when a suicide car bomb detonated immediately behind my Stryker. Fortunately for us, the spot of the attack was on a main road that was a favorite location for Jihadists to take shots at us, so we had acquired the habit of ducking whenever driving by– a habit which kept our heads attached to our shoulders that day. The armor on the Stryker was sufficient to protect us from the car parts, shell fragments and nuts and bolts al Qaeda bomb makers liked to add to make their bombs as lethal as possible– especially if a crowd of women and children could be found. The armor, however, could not entirely protect us from the blast wave and we all sustained concussions. Our Stryker was destroyed.
A few weeks later we hit an IED buried in the road in our new Stryker. The bomb blew a hole between the driver’s legs and literally blew the gunner out of the turret. Again we survived with all of our parts and pieces, but sustained another concussion.
In September we returned to Fort Lewis and, after a very inadequate screening and examination process, I was told I did not have TBI. To my knowledge, not a single member of my Troop was diagnosed with TBI at the time. I was experiencing many of the symptoms of TBI, but the symptoms are often identical to those of Post Traumatic Stress Injuries. So I went to counseling. And more counseling. And even more counseling. But I just wasn’t getting better.
While I was in Iraq, I had been selected by West Point to return for a few years as an instructor in the Department of History. The assignment included a two-year stint of graduate school to prepare for the instructor position I began in August 2008. Graduate school was very difficult for our family. I will share more of the experience in a future post, but suffice to say that I was not doing well academically, physically or behaviorally. I was suffering from chronic headaches and body pain. Our marriage was strained to the breaking point. That I still have a family is a credit to the courage and love of my wonderful companion.
We finished graduate school and I reported to West Point in July 2010. I also had the good fortune of being assigned an experienced sports physician as my primary care provider at the Army Community Hospital. He immediately recognized my symptoms as the results of Traumatic Brain Injury– not only PTS– and began an aggressive diagnostic and treatment process. In November we added a baby boy, Trenton, to the family. By March, however, the pressures of Army life combined with the chronic pain had taken their toll and I had to be relieved of all duties and was referred to a Medical Evaluation Board. Eighteen months later the board found me medically unfit for duty due to TBI and PTSI. I was medically retired in August 2012.
On retirement I found myself adrift. I was unemployable. I was still suffering chronic headaches and body pain that, despite numerous medications, could not be stopped. I was in poor health both physically and mentally. I couldn’t see a path for my future. Many of the things I had hoped to achieve in life now seemed unobtainable. We could no longer to afford to live in New York on a Army pension and VA disability payments, so we sold our home and relocated to Council Bluffs, Iowa, where Farrah’s parents resided and cost of living was substantially lower then in the lower Hudson Valley region.
After arriving in Iowa, SFTT found me. I had long been a fan of David Hackworth, the founder of SFTT. I had read his book About Face as a cadet and his last book Steel My Soldiers Hearts is a regular reference in professional leadership discussions. SFTT arranged for me to travel to New Orleans where Dr. Paul Harch is pioneering a treatment for TBI using hyberbaric oxygen– a treatment used to help heal a number of other types of injuries and conditions. Dr. Harch agreed to treat me pro-bono and I am currently his guest for a seven-week course of treatment. I am cautiously optimistic.