Sam

Age at interview: 32
Outline:

Stationed in Iraq over the course of one-year, Sam was exposed to blast incidents more times than he can remember. While still deployed, memory issues began to impact his job and he would forget to do small tasks that were part of his duties as a team leader. At home his memory issues just got worse and impacted his ability to perform in school. He finally went to a TBI clinic to get help and began regular therapy. To cope with his symptoms, Sam uses repetition, relies on his phone, and takes down notes.

Background:

Military branch: Air National Guard

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During the one-year period that Sam was stationed in Iraq while serving with the Air National Guard, he was “blown up fifteen or sixteen times.” There were two incidents in particular when he was “knocked silly” and the details of both remain hazy. Although never physically injured in a way that could be seen to the naked eye, Sam began to experience problems with vertigo and forgetfulness. His memory issues began affecting his job as a team leader. When conducting pre-combat checks of his unit he would forget small things, like making sure each soldier's gear was in order for the next mission. When this was pointed out to him he was surprised and would wonder, “why didn’t I check this? And it wasn’t because of complacency, it was because – I don’t know why. Just forgot.”

At home between deployments, Sam’s issues with his memory “got worse and worse and worse to where like I would forget to brush my teeth. I would forget to do all this other stuff.” After coming home from his second deployment and retiring from the Air National Guard, Sam had aspirations to become a teacher but had trouble focusing in school. “I would forget to do homework, or I would forget to study. I wasn’t properly taking notes.” Frustrated, he began to seek help at the TBI clinic and in therapy. “I started going to these groups for TBI, and they would – and they weren’t like to cure TBI - it was like, ‘Here are the things that could help you with TBI.’”

Once Sam started receiving support he was able to understand and deal with the limitations of his memory and his issues with focus and began to feel like “a lot more saner, calmer person.” By forcing himself to develop new skills and “doing things over and over” Sam says he “found out school was easy as long as I did it my way…which is like a kinesthetic learning way. I have to physically be doing something to, to learn. Or I’m moving, or I’m doodling while someone’s lecturing, or something like that. I have to, my body physically has to do something in order for it to learn. And that’s not how I used to be.” To keep track of his life and keep up in school he takes “copious amounts of notes” and relies on his phone, using the calendar and setting alarms for reminders.

Having the support of his wife and family has been important for Sam, who says that having a support group is essential for anyone struggling with memory problems. Although his condition has not gotten better, and may never improve, he says what has improved is “my ability to live with it, my ability not to get frustrated at it, my ability to work around it.”

 

 

 

Sam recalls two different explosions that contributed to his TBI.

Sam recalls two different explosions that contributed to his TBI.

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So, it’s hard to say when it first occurred. I was blown up – I was in strikers, and strikers are a pretty hardy vehicle for the, for – so you see pictures of like the torn-up Humvees and stuff like that. Well the same IED would strike a striker, and it wouldn’t hurt the vehicle. So, the people inside were relatively safe from shrapnel and all this other stuff. But the concussive blast will still affect you, shake you up, and all this other stuff. And especially if you’re in Air Guard where you’re not being, where the, where the wave doesn’t come through the actual armor, but it hasn’t, I guess an un-molested way to your head would be the best way of putting it.

And I was – during two explosions that I know of, because sometimes they get hazy thinking about it. I was in the air yard hatch, so I took the full brunt of the concussive force right to the face. And I remember the explosion. I don’t remember a sound. And then I remember waking up laying down inside the striker and dust going all around me and making it really dark, so I thought I was going blind. Because I was like, “What the heck’s going on? Did I get something in my eyes?” [Someone] said, “No, you got, you got knocked silly by the bomb.” I was like, “Oh, okay.” And that was the first one. And the second one I fell, I didn’t fall in, I bent backwards from the concussive. It pushed me backwards and knocked me out for about ten, fifteen seconds. And after those, and then I was inside the vehicle for a lot of explosions, too, which would rock me but they wouldn’t knock me out.

 

Sam talks about how traumatic brain injury was unknown and not discussed when he was serving in the military.

Sam talks about how traumatic brain injury was unknown and not discussed when he was serving in the military.

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So, what happened is – we got back – oh, when I was there, concussions, TBI, that, that was not something that was discussed because it was something that was really unknown. The war started in 2003, they started using IEDs near the end of 2003, right about the time I started getting there. They were not nearly as bad as the IEDs are now, where it will split the vehicle in half, toss it fifty feet in the air and stuff like that. So, on that front, I’m happy that they were small. But I’m also sad, because the way that war goes is stuff gets better and better and better and bigger and bigger and bigger. Like World War II, the atom bomb, it went from little bombs to destroying seventy thousand people. And that’s just the way that technology goes in the war, especially explosive technology. And so, I forgot what we were talking about.

I: We were just talking about kind of what happened afterwards, and if you got treatment?

The treatment was like basically a concussion test. Do the eye thing, ask you some questions, “Hey, what’s going on?” I’ll be like, “I’m a little woozy, feel a little lightheaded.” And they’d be like, “All right, here, take these. Go take some rest. You’re not going out on mission tomorrow.” Nauseous because I was woozy. After, after a day I was back out there. Like after like one day I went back out and just did it and had a good time. Then I got blown up a month or two afterwards. I can’t remember exactly when that happened. It’s just, because there was a lot of them.

 

Sam’s symptoms got worse after he returned home and he was diagnosed with TBI while applying for disability at the VA.

Sam’s symptoms got worse after he returned home and he was diagnosed with TBI while applying for disability at the VA.

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And it – when I got home, it got worse and worse and worse to where like I would forget to brush my teeth, I would forget to do all this other stuff. And then I went back into the National Guard, and then went again. And then after – and then went to Iraq again. And when I came back I applied for disability through the VA. And when I applied for disability through the VA, I met some old lady who was like a nurse scientist who works for the VA down in Eugene, but she works from, she works in Oregon and like Nebraska. She has a bunch of books out and she was the one that was seeing if I had TBI, anything like that. So, I mean like someone that is like, I would say forerunner to the whole TBI thing. She was, she was an older lady. I forgot her name. But she, she, she did this one test where it was like she showed me a bunch of faces, and then it was like, “Remember these faces.” And I did, and I got a really good score on that. And the reason I remembered wasn’t because I was trying to remember the face. In the military, they teach you to remember certain features about a face, which makes it a lot easier to put in your brain for short-term and stuff. So, I did that, and she’s like, “Oh, you were,” this certain job? And I was like, “Yeah, that’s the kind of job I did.” She was like, “Okay, we got to do a different test.” She gave me a different test, I bombed it really, really bad. But I think me doing that she, she started writing, started doing different tests for people, for TBI, personally for her. She’s like, “Oh, I got to remember this next time.”

And then after that, I started going to these groups for TBI, and they would – and they weren’t like to cure TBI - it was like, “Here are the things that could help you with TBI.” And the big thing was getting into the habit of using my phone to put in data, stuff like that for appointments. Which even now like, because I leave my phone on silent a lot because I’m in school all the time. Even now like sometimes I’ll forget, even though it’s in my phone, it’s probably going off, it’s on silent so I forget. I was, I was told I was right on the edge. So there was like – there’s TBI and then there’s – here’s the edge and there’s the other TBI. And I was right on the edge and I, if I chose to go this way it would’ve given me like a hundred percent disability, instead of this disability that I have now.

 

Sam talks about his difficulty learning new things and how that impacts his ability to develop new hobbies.

Sam talks about his difficulty learning new things and how that impacts his ability to develop new hobbies.

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So, information that I retain before I went to deployment, because I was twenty-four when – twenty, no I was twenty-two when I started going on to Iraq. And information that I retained before doing that, I still retain it and I retain it pretty well. Like it’s compartmentalized and all this other stuff. So, any hobbies that I developed before I was twenty-four is very easy to do. So, like working out, going outside, running around, hiking, videogame playing, reading fiction, you know, books, sci-fi books and stuff like that. Like I never, I still don’t find it hard to do. Like it’s easy to do all those things. It’s when I’m trying to develop new stuff, like learning to cook better, or learning to do art and all this other stuff. I’ll have like moments of brilliance, and then like I’ll come back and try to replicate that brilliance and it’s not there. And I’ll be like, “What happened? I was doing so well.” And so, it’s, it’s almost like a weird re-learning thing? It’s like my hand thinks it knows what it’s doing sort of thing, like whatever’s controlling my hand to make it do these shapes is doing it well, but my brain’s just like not able to put it into the right way that it was before. Maybe that goes with art, but then with cooking like I try to replicate what I did before, don’t remember, stuff like that.

 

Although Sam struggled in school initially, he found new ways to learn and to manage his work load.

Although Sam struggled in school initially, he found new ways to learn and to manage his work load.

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So, I got back and I had large aspirations. I was like, “I’m going to be a teacher.” And I went to school and, no, that wasn’t happening. I would forget to do homework, or I would forget to study and do all this other stuff. I wasn’t properly taking notes. This is also around the time I started seeing the psychologist and I started going to the TBI clinic. But once that started happening, I started figuring all these tools and these ways of doing it and becoming a lot more saner, calmer person, I found out school was easy as long as I did it my way. I use my learning way, which is like a kinesthetic learning way. I have to physically be doing something to, to learn. Or I’m moving, or I’m doodling while someone’s lecturing, or something like that. I have to, my body physically has to do something in order for it to learn. And that’s not how I used to be.

 

Sam says he finds greater enjoyment in school and learning than he did before his injury.

Sam says he finds greater enjoyment in school and learning than he did before his injury.

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Absolutely. I enjoy the way that I learn now, more so than I did before, because I can just a read a book. And when you read a book that’s not something you’re interested in, it’s boring. But now like I go to a not interesting class, it becomes more exciting because I’m actively learning it instead of like osmosis-ly, like learning it. And so, it makes time fly by a lot faster, it makes school a lot more exciting. It does a lot of stuff, because I have to try a little bit harder, and that trying a little bit harder is a lot more fun.

 

Sam has learned to live with his injury by finding ways to work around it instead of getting frustrated.

Sam has learned to live with his injury by finding ways to work around it instead of getting frustrated.

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I feel really good. I feel, I feel really, really good. And it’s just been lately. Like over the last two years, life’s been getting really better. Like school’s coming easier to me, like I – that’s because I just stuck – I put my nose to the grindstone and just charged hard into it. I was like, “I have to do this.” And so, I forced myself over and over and over again to do certain things. I don’t think I’ve cracked a textbook, because I would go to tutoring and stuff like that. I don’t think I’ve really cracked a textbook in like two years, other than like the online class that I’m taking today where I’m going to crack the textbook and read it probably six or seven times to try and get it. Look up a video; look up some sort of article, maybe it’s better explained to me. But that’s about it.

I: Yeah. Do you feel like there’s any amount, like some of the things that you’ve experienced, are there any things that you feel like are getting better over time? Like are there healing or is the brain repairing itself?

I don’t think it’s getting better, I think it – I think what’s getting better is my ability to live with it, my ability not to get frustrated at it, my ability to work around it. But it’s still there. Like when I couldn’t think of the word ‘organize.’ It took me thirty seconds to like finally figure it out. Like and I’ve probably used that word already four or five times today. It doesn’t matter. And so, I know it’s there, but I don’t get frustrated with myself when I can’t think of it. And that’s the big thing, you guys.

 

Sam worked with a psychologist who helped him to develop tools to cope with his memory loss and make his life easier.

Sam worked with a psychologist who helped him to develop tools to cope with his memory loss and make his life easier.

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She was very easy to talk to. Like, I mean she’s a psychologist. Like I don’t know what they do, but it made it very – actually, she’s the only psychologist that I was actually able to benefit from, would probably be the best way. But she was very forgiving when it came to like punctuality and stuff like that. Like she would call me like a half hour before, like, “Hey, you remember,” because she knew I had TBI and was like, “Hey, you remember that you have this?” I’ll be like, “Oh yeah, I’ll be there shortly. Sorry.” She worked with me very well. And she also put me in contact with like groups with the U of O that were doing TBI studies and stuff like that, to help you start developing counter measures to your TBI. I’m like, “Oh yeah, I’d love to do that,” and it really did help a lot.

Yeah, because I didn’t really start – my wife is like, “Hey, you should probably,” not because of the anger, because of the forgetfulness, like it was that bad, “You should probably go talk to a psychologist,” because I didn’t know how to approach it. I’d be like, my brain’s physically been altered to the point where I can’t remember stuff. Like is there any sort of thing that would help me? And I was trying to find a cure instead of, you know where you work through it; I forgot what you call it – instead of a way to deal with it. I was like, “I want a cure. Give me a new brain.” But then I talked to the psychologist and was like, “There’s nothing we could do about it, but what we can do about it is help give you tools necessary to make your life a lot easier.”

 

Sam is very upfront with his family about his injury and how it has changed him.

Sam is very upfront with his family about his injury and how it has changed him.

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I come from such a huge loving, supportive family. So, when I came back – I’m very open about it, and a lot of veterans aren’t open about what’s happened to them because there’s a stigma that says if you’re open about it you’re a wuss. No, what you’re doing is you’re trying to help, what you’re doing is trying to bring these problems that veterans deal with to the forefront. If instead of doing it on TV where you’re telling millions of people, you’re doing it one person at a time, until another person. And it works just the same; it’s just slower. With them I, I, I was pretty upfront about it. It was like, “So did you get hurt?” And be like, “Well I got blown up a few times and knocked me silly.” It’s - yeah, remember when I got back there wasn’t any talk about TBIs. Like, so like yeah I got a concussion, [laughs] that’s what it was called. Contusion of the brain, quite a few times. And I would tell them that, I would tell them funny stories. I never really told them war stories, just funny stories that happened in war, you know and all this other stuff. And they’ve supported me like one hundred percent. Like my mom, my dad, my stepdad, my wife, all this other stuff; they, they – because I’m very forthcoming with it. Like I tell them, be like, “This is me. Physically, there’s certain things that I can’t do, or can’t remember to do,” or something like that. Like it has nothing – I’m not being disrespectful, you just have to know.