Roger

Age at interview: 68
Outline:

Roger was serving as a combat pilot in Vietnam when his helicopter was shot down by enemy fire, sending it crashing into trees and dislocating the rotor blade, which sliced through his head. Lucky to be alive, Roger was in a coma for ten weeks and his memory of his first 19 years of life was completely erased. Once he was conscious and after his body was healed, Roger had to relearn all basic functions and skills including how to eat and who his family was. He used his GI Bill benefits to return to school ten years after completely losing his memory, and today works to help others who struggle with similar debilitating injuries.

Background:

Military branch: Army

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Roger grew up in a military family. At 19-years-old he was commissioned into the military and sent to Vietnam where his father and brother also served, and where the latter lost his life. As a combat helicopter pilot, he had been shot down twice and had walked away from both incidents with only minor wounds. In May 1967, just after his 20th birthday, Roger’s helicopter was shot down and sent crashing into trees. The impact dislocated the aircraft’s rotor blade and sent it slicing through his head, nearly killing him and completely erasing his memory of the first 19 years of his life.

Initially in a coma for ten weeks and confined to a full body cast, Roger spent the next three and half years in the hospital recovering and relearning everything from walking and talking to eating and dressing. He was expected to die from his injuries and is still considered something of a miracle by his doctors. “The last 40-something odd years I’ve been told four times that I was going to die.”

Roger has continually defied expectations of his capabilities after the accident. Ten years after completely losing his memory, while still working to relearn basic functions and skills and rehabilitate from his injuries, he used his GI Bill benefits to returned to school. Undeterred by seemingly insurmountable setbacks, Roger earned his doctorate in Psychology in 1984. Since then he has made it his life’s work to help other people struggling with similar debilitating injuries. “Working with the people that I have,” he says, “I’ve witnessed things that blew my mind. How people can have guts and do something. And, and, and it’s because they realize they can do it. And then they might, they might mess up the first couple times or the first couple hundred times. But they can do it.”

Although his recovery can be considered an overwhelming success, Roger still has pain in his legs and head every day and sometimes has trouble with his balance. He has a constant ringing in his ears, has lost his senses of smell and taste, and has trouble with his speech, which he says is the most frustrating part of his condition. Still Roger keeps a positive outlook. “I’ve lost the past,” he says “but it’s been a great life.” To others struggling with the effects of concussion and brain injury he says, “as much as you believe you’ve lost, I can promise you there’s a possibility that you can get back what you need to live a wonderful life.”

 

Roger talks about the helicopter crash that caused his injury.

Roger talks about the helicopter crash that caused his injury.

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I was shot down in Vietnam on May the 8th of ’67.  When we crashed into the trees, actually before probably, but the, the, the main rotor came off. And it just spun right to my cockpit and tried to cut me, my head off. As far as I know, I am the only Vietnam Veteran to survive a motor, a rotor dislocation. And I’ve been blessed in many ways. I mean, I’ve been on Hour of Power with Bobby Schuller, Unsolved Mysteries, and Reader’s Digest and weird papers all over the world. And so, I am the most widely, widely known. But most people have no idea who I was - if they saw me again, they wouldn’t know. But that’s life, that’s life.

 

Roger’s primary care doctor told him that he is in good health and that if he dies now it will not be because of his brain injury.

Roger’s primary care doctor told him that he is in good health and that if he dies now it will not be because of his brain injury.

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I’ll tell you one thing, that OK, remember, they told me I was going to die. I saw my primary provider, last week? And he was, he had been giving me all these tests every six months, every year. I’m sorry, every year. And I see him every six months. And, and he took a look through all these tests and he, and he said, “really, really good.” He said, “really good.” And he said, “On, on your, your diabetes – really in control. You’ve still got it, don’t worry about that.” But he said, “You’re doing really, really well. Your blood pressure is doing really, really well,” all these things. And then he said, “You know,” how do I put it? “It’s like if you die now,” here are these other doctors that told me I’m going to die with my head, so, my brain is so messed up. He said, “If you die now, it will not be because of your brain injury.” And he said, and he looked, he showed me some things on, on the computer. And he said, “Because of this score, and this score, and this score, and this score.” And it showed, it means that the, I have a - is only a fifteen percent likelihood that I will have a heart attack or stroke in the next fifteen years, or ten years. And then he said, “And you’ll probably live another fifteen to twenty years.”

 

Roger talks about struggling to find words.

Roger talks about struggling to find words.

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And, and sometimes, as my wife knows, I forget. I don’t – if forget is the right word, words. What, what, what word? Well that’s what I always say. That’s what I always say, “Hey,” and I just don’t remember and it’s in there somewhere. But, but then I don’t know. And I, although I don’t – OK, I don’t think its Alzheimer’s Disease onset, because in Alzheimer’s you don’t know there is a word that means something. Even if you can’t think of the word, you don’t look for the word because it’s gone, it’s out of your life. And that’s what I have at times where, where not, not, that’s not what I have. I’m sorry. Should have said. I, I just, trying, “What is the word that means this?” Or sometimes, “You ever heard of this word?”

 

Roger went on to get a PhD in psychology and started his own company to help brain injured people.

Roger went on to get a PhD in psychology and started his own company to help brain injured people.

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And, but I had seizures, couldn’t walk well, even then. And I talked, you know - kind of. And, and I knew I couldn’t get a job. And I got a job, sort of – well I did, I got a job as a salesman for Western Foods. And then I had my seizures and lost that job, you know? But they were, they were wonderful to me. They were wonderful, Western Foods. But you know, what could I do? Okay, I’m, I’m – academically, I’m pretty smart. And well, what I can do is help people. And then, and so I decided to go for my doctorate. And the VA sent me, by the way. But not to become a psychologist. I wanted a PhD in Psychology, but to be a better counselor. And after I graduated – okay then I – well before I graduated I figured out I needed to get licensed. Or, or what can you do? So, I got my PhD and then I did my internship with the VA, twenty months. And then, and then I had my own company, it’s named after my brother. Working with brain injured people.

Well it’s counseling, for one thing. And that’s a lot more of a, as you know already. For sometimes, or many times, people have no idea why they should change. If they, you know, they do something and they do it over and over and over and over again, but nothing ever changes, and so they can’t understand that, “Hey, maybe if I tried a different way, I might find the right way.” But, many, many people just don’t, they can’t imagine how they’re wrong, how they could be wrong. And I, I work with people that are dealing, dealing with their issues, if I can. I work with people on helping them overcome some things, like being able to dress themselves. And not just – being able to walk, even. And, and this isn’t, isn’t like you know. I, I help them through imagery therapy and, and it’s a pretty long process. But it’s where they gain the courage that they’re not going to fail. They’re not going to hurt themselves. And if they mess up one time, I’ll do it again because they’ve done it successfully so many times in their mind. Nobody call tell them they have, they’ve never done it so why, why try?

 

Roger recalls how his father helped him learn.

Roger recalls how his father helped him learn.

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No, no. Well, I take it back. My father, my father. But, and – okay, my father, my father went to tenth grade. In the Army he finished, he finished high school and two years of college. But, he went to tenth grade before he joined. And he was so smart. And, and we would discuss things. You know and I, like in my classes. I mean we would write and ask questions and he’d bring back with questions. And he really helped me learn.

 

Roger describes the good care he has received at the VA.

Roger describes the good care he has received at the VA.

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The VA has tried to take such good care of me in so many ways that I owe everything in the world to them. Some, some of the doctors I’ve had over the years were, were no smarter than me and I wasn’t very smart. And, but still there were so many tried things and I’ve, like I, I go to the hospital, go to the clinic two, three times a month. And, I mean and, and, and I’m always being sent to the VA, the big hospital to see a specialist. And one, of course, for my vision, which is not the best in the world. And, so a few months ago the, the fellow that checked my eyes gave me a prescription, he gave me a prescription and I got glasses at the VA. And I might as well have been blind. He was, I mean they were so far off that it was, that it was worthless. So, I had to use my old glasses, which weren’t much better. And, but still, still though he tried. And, and other people there tried. I guess that’s in life, period. That’s what impresses me more than anything is when, is when people try. And one thing you notice when I talk, sometimes I’ll say things and I’ll say it slurred. I notice it. And, so it makes me, it makes me feel very uncomfortable that I do it. But it’s going to be that way for the rest of my life, I guess.

 

Roger would like to tell other veterans that as much as you have lost, you can get back what you need to live a wonderful life.

Roger would like to tell other veterans that as much as you have lost, you can get back what you need to live a wonderful life.

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As much as you believe you’ve lost, I can promise you, there’s a possibility that you can get back what you need to live a wonderful life.

I: Do you feel like you’ve gotten that back?

I’ve got a long ways to go, too. But yeah, I’ve had a great life. Like, like working with the people that I have, I mean I, I’ve witnessed things that blew my mind. How people can have guts and do something. And, and, and it’s because they realize they can do it. And then they might, they might mess up the first couple times or the first couple hundred times. But they can do it. And like a lot of people, “Oh, you poor person. You poor, you’ve lost so much.” But, you know, if, if the first thing you say is not what you’ve lost – you know you’ve got so much, so much that you can use to give you a great life.

 

Although his wife really tried, Roger said that after his injury it was like being married to a seven-year old.

Although his wife really tried, Roger said that after his injury it was like being married to a seven-year old.

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….And, she tried hard, I’m sure she did. But I was, I mean I was, I was dinky. I was, you know I was, it’s like being married to somebody that is mentally retarded. And also spastic. And also uncoordinated. Also really, really, really weird. And, and so she just couldn’t take it. And I’m getting divorced. But at first, at the hospital, I couldn’t walk or anything. Couldn’t walk or run right. But I got a wheelchair and I couldn’t talk very much. But we lived in an apartment, because being in the Army and being retired from the Army, we always had money. And, but again, she - I mean we didn’t have a life. I mean, it wasn’t hear fault. It wasn’t my fault. It was the fault of, whatever. And, and also we, she just, I mean here she's eighteen, a mother, and she's living with, with a seven-year-old. I mean married to a seven-year-old.