Matt

Age at interview: 49
Outline:

Matt sustained a brain injury in January 2011 when a rocket struck about 25 feet from where he was sitting in a dining facility. This incident is one of the last things Matt recalls from his deployment which ended two months later. Matt continues to experience ongoing symptoms including migraines, sensitivity to light, blurred vision, tinnitus, memory loss. He also struggles with his mood and anger. To cope with his symptoms, Matt goes to a support group and has taken a mindfulness class at the VA. He keeps organized by writing things down and using a calendar to keep track of his schedule. Matt also uses the assistance of a service dog to help with stability and anxiety, which has enabled him to go into stores and crowded places again.

Background:

Military branch: Army National Guard 

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Matt served in the Army National Guard from 1985-2012. His first TBI occurred in 2003 in Afghanistan.  While doing pull ups with 100-150 extra pounds of gear on him, his shoulder gave out, landing him flat on his back and knocking him out for a couple seconds. He got checked and they really didn’t do much about it at the time because it was just like, “Oh you just got a minor headache, slight concussion. Go on about your business.” His last TBI occurred in January 2011, when a rocket struck about 25 feet from where he was sitting in a dining facility. His memory for much of his remaining two months in Afghanistan was erased as he “just kind of dealt with it because we were so close to going home, and I didn’t want to put up with all hassles of all the medical stuff. They were busy doing other, taking care of people more seriously hurt.” 

After many years, Matt continues to have daily headaches, although he now has fewer severe migraines. He wears dark sunglasses to help with his light sensitivity, and still has occasional blurred vision and a constant ringing in his ears. He used to be easily angered, but has learned how to control his anger by taking a mindfulness class at the VA, and has also found a VA support group to be helpful. His service dog has helped with his stability and anxiety, enabling him to go into stores and crowded places again. “She helps keep me focused on the here and now and not things that happened in the past. She does really good about getting me back into the moment instead of letting me wander off in places. Like, I’ll start drifting off and she’ll sense I’m getting irritated or angry and she’ll come over and nudge me. And if I really just ignore her, she will put her paws on my shoulder, put her face right in my face, and go, ‘No, you’re going listen. You’re going to pay attention to me. Focus on me.’” Also, “There will be times I’ll stand up, I’ll be dizzy. Or I’ll be walking, I’ll lose my balance. She’s always right next to me so I can just kind of put my hand on her to get myself stable again. That’s really what she does is she’ll lean up against me to, she notices sometimes I’m wobbly and she’ll lean up against me to help me steady.” 

He advises others with TBI to “make sure you’re up front and honest with your family, and don’t try to minimize how you’re feeling or the effects when you’re talking to your doctor because if you minimize it, it’s not going to help you as much.” He also suggests that others “make up to-do lists, make up a routine, try to get into a set routine as much as you can. Because that will help you stay focused on what you need to do.” Finally Matt advises “don’t get frustrated, because it will happen. You’re going to have memory issues. You’re going to have headaches or whatever, just don’t let that push your anger and frustration higher. Just kind of accept that you have it and every day just work at trying to get better on it.”

 

Matt sustained both impact and blast injuries while deployed in Afghanistan.

Matt sustained both impact and blast injuries while deployed in Afghanistan.

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It originally happened June of 2003. We were doing the physical training over in Afghanistan. We had full gear. Roughly about 100, 150 extra pounds on me. We were doing pull ups, and I was doing some pull ups and all of the sudden my shoulder just gave out. I landed flat on my back and when I opened my eyes I had people standing around me. Probably had been out for a couple seconds. And went and got checked and they really didn’t do much about it at the time because it was just like, “Oh you just got a minor headache, slight concussion. Go on about your business.” And the last time I got a concussion, I was in the dining facility and a rocket hit probably about 25 feet from where I was sitting. Jarred me and my ears rang for about two weeks afterwards.

 

Matt was tested and diagnosed with TBI as part of the reintegration process after returning home from his deployment.

Matt was tested and diagnosed with TBI as part of the reintegration process after returning home from his deployment.

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I just kind of dealt with it because we were so close to going home, and I didn’t want to put up with all hassles of all the medical stuff. They were busy doing other, taking care of people more seriously hurt.  And, well when I got back is when I started seeking treatment and getting tested and everything. 

I: And did that happen just sort of as a part of you, as you were coming back, did that happen just automatically or did you have to visit the place you and go for testing and evaluation?

Well, when we returned home we had to go through a reintegration in which they check your medical stuff and at that time I told them well I suffered concussion back in January, my ears rang for about two to three weeks, headaches ever since then. And then they finally eventually got me to into talking with different doctors, getting checked out.


I: And did they ultimately give you a TBI diagnosis or what did they, what did they -


Yeah, I’m rated 40 or 50% with TBI.

 

Matt has noticed differences in his temperament, including being more watchful and easily angered.

Matt has noticed differences in his temperament, including being more watchful and easily angered.

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My, my temperament. I was easily angered. Always super watchful. After a time that kind of has eased a little bit. Kind of figured out how I need to do it to control my anger. Because usually if somebody did something that would irritate me I’d just lash out right away and now I’ve gotten to where I can actually sit there and take a breath, think about it, you know, is this something worth getting totally irritated and pissed off about?

…I just don’t like large crowds because it’s usually large crowds where something bad’s going to happen.  I’ve had incidents over in Afghanistan where part of our job was to inspect vehicles before they came to base.  Found rockets, grenades, land mines, whatever, set up in the vehicles. Sometimes you could check a vehicle, Bob could check it, and would catch nothing. Then it goes to the next gate and gets checked and they could find, they could hit on something totally different.  Had incidents where I’ve had to, actually because I’m probably like one of the smaller guys there, I had to stick my arm down in a gas tank and feel around for a land mine or something, where it did show up on the screen as something in the gas tank, so it’s like well, got to check it out somehow. I’ve just seen too many incidents where things happened and possibly could happen. I just don’t like being in places where I can’t control my surroundings that much.

 

Matt has a service dog who helps him to cope with anxieties, especially when going to public places.

Matt has a service dog who helps him to cope with anxieties, especially when going to public places.

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She helps with my stability. Just kind of helps with my anxieties.

I: What are the things that you feel anxious about?

Oh I just, I don’t like being out in public that much. Since I got her I’ve started enjoying my life again, being able to do stuff. It’s gotten to where I can actually go sometimes to different events without her. If I’m with my wife and my son, we’re good.

I: How did you get her? How did that, how did you figure out that that was something that could be helpful?

My wife did a lot of research on it, different uses for service dogs, and she just said one day, “You know what, we should try to get you a service dog to help you with your anxiety and help you actually walk around without having to have a cane with you all the time. She helps keep me focused on things so if I start wandering off to some place where I shouldn’t be going in my mind, she’ll distract me and bring me back to reality. That’s all. We were at event at Mall of America for Veterans and there was a guy there that trains service dogs. Talked to him. He helped us find, well we found her on Craigslist and he checked her out before we even said “Yah, we’ll take the dog.” And he did all the training, with me and the family. It was really good. We got her when she was six months old, which was what I wanted. I didn’t want to go somewhere, get a dog that’s like two or three years old and then have to get the dog to learn to listen to me, and then I’d have to go home, go through the whole process over again so the dog would listen to my wife and kid. That’s why they train right along with us, with the owner, so we know she listens to them as well as to me.

 

Matt has learned to accept his limitations, but not let them stop him from doing the things he needs to do.

Matt has learned to accept his limitations, but not let them stop him from doing the things he needs to do.

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A lot of them I just learned to deal with and just accept it and not let it stop me from doing stuff. It’s like if I get headaches but I need to go with my son to some scouting event or something with him, I’ll just deal with the headache and go do whatever I need to do. Unless I can absolutely not have to do it, I’ll find a way to commit myself to be able to do it. Whether it’s walking around late afternoon with dark sunglasses on or -

I: Yeah. Does that get hard?

It does, it does get hard after a while the, it’s not really that hard on me but it’s really hard on my wife and kids, because we go places, they always have to make sure where I’m at, that I’m comfortable before they can do anything. It’s like, so, it’s more tough on the family then it is on me because I’ve learned to deal with it and accepted it. And it’s just, it’s always something constantly that changes it.  One day I could go into Walmart and it could be crowded and it wouldn’t bother me at all with Bella [his dog] next to me and the next day I could go in and, just the way people are acting could put me on edge.  So I really don’t know what to expect each day when I get up. It’s like I could be in a good mood when I get up, or I could be in one of my bad moods when I get up. 

I: And do you know, can you know what to expect, like from the moment your feet hit the floor, can you kind of tell what the day’s going to be like or does it take a while to unfold?

I can usually tell by once I get up and start moving around how the day is going to be. Then it’s like - I’ll let my wife know - “OK, don’t expect a lot from me today because I’m just not there.”

 

Although his headaches are no longer as frequent, Matt says that his memory and sensitivity to bright lights have gotten worse.

Although his headaches are no longer as frequent, Matt says that his memory and sensitivity to bright lights have gotten worse.

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Some of them have gotten better. Some have gotten worse. Sensitivity to bright light has gotten worse.  Actually I go back in another week or so to get my eyes rechecked and get darker sunglasses.  Headaches have stayed about the same, just not as frequent as they used to be. Now it’s just like maybe one migraine every week. And all the other times it’s just a bad headache.

I: And is there stuff that’s gotten, what about your memory? Can you talk about that a little bit. How that’s sort of changed, or -

It’s gotten worse over time. There was, I could, my biggest problem is I could go downstairs and start the laundry and know in half hour I need to take it and put it into the dryer. And I’ll get upstairs, I’ll start doing other stuff and I’ll totally forget that I even started the laundry, or I’m supposed to do this. If I don’t put it down in my calendar it could be - all of a sudden I just realize - “Oh, shoot, I was supposed to be somewhere at 2:00.”  And I’ll call - “Oh, I forgot that I had the appointment. I need to reschedule.”