Theo

Age at interview: 32
Outline:

During one of three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan while serving in the Army National Guard, Theo was involved in a riot while trying to help evacuate US personnel from a compound under siege. He was struck by debris and knocked unconscious. From the impact of the blow Theo temporarily lost use of this left arm, and was left with chronic back pain and memory loss. To cope with the pain and stress from his injuries Theo attends group therapy sessions at the VA, goes to a chiropractor, and receives acupuncture.

Background:

Military branch: Army National Guard

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During his nine years of service in the Army National Guard, Theo did three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, totaling over two years serving abroad in a conflict zone. During one of these tours, Theo was caught in a riot while trying to evacuate United Nations personnel from a compound that was under siege and was struck in the shoulder and base of the neck with a rock “about the size of the dictionaries that we grew up with.” The next thing Theo recalled was coming back to consciousness on the ground and finding he could not use his left arm. The rioting continued for two days and Theo continued his work on guard duty despite not being able to use his left arm and hand. Although he regained the function of his arm, Theo was left with chronic neck and back pain and various issues associated with TBI, including difficulty focusing and short-term memory loss that continues to severely impact his ability to function day-to-day. 

Theo stayed in Iraq for extra time after his original deployment ended in an effort to increase his GI Bill incentive, with a plan to return to school to become a law enforcement officer when he got home. The summer after he returned from service Theo suffered a seizure, thought to be associated with the medication he was taking. Due to his seizure and the memory issues that were becoming increasing apparent to him at the time, Theo realized law enforcement was no longer an option and decided to move back to the area where he grew up “where I was familiar, where there is less stress and anxiety of being lost, and more familiar people.”

Theo says the hardest part of his injury is the taxing nature of his memory loss. Although he struggles with his memory he says his mind never shuts off. “Your mind is still running and the hard part is that when you know that you have a memory problem you’re constantly trying to reiterate things to yourself to remind yourself so that you don’t forget them.”

To cope with the pain and stress from his injuries, Theo seeks help by attending group therapy sessions at the VA, seeing a chiropractor, and receiving acupuncture. Although he was initially ashamed of his memory issues and tried to hide them, he says he now shares his condition with people that he encounters on a regular basis. “Once you tell people that and they see you, they’re much more understanding. They’re more happy about the amount that you do remember than they are upset by the amount that you forgot.”

 

While deployed in Afghanistan, Theo was struck by a large rock the size of the “dictionaries we grew up with.”

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While deployed in Afghanistan, Theo was struck by a large rock the size of the “dictionaries we grew up with.”

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The best that we can figure is that the injuries I sustained in Afghanistan, I was involved in a riot in the first primary elections and what happened for us was we were personal protection for civil affairs. Civil affairs are the small groups that go and spend money to develop the country for stability, schools, wells, women’s centers, things of that nature. Well, while we were there the elections happened and during the elections there was rioting in our town and they were burning down the United Nations compounds and other foreign aid buildings and with the intent of killing those inside. So, we went out and evacuated those personnel to our compound and then [evacuated] them from our base with helicopters. Our base wasn’t set up for this. We didn’t have the personnel and the equipment to handle that large of an influx of people. During the process of evacuating other individuals I was injured and part of the issue we dealt is that they weren’t using lethal force per say, they were using bricks, Molotov cocktails, as degrading as it sounds but bottles of feces, bottles of urine, throwing them at us. What I was hit with was a large rock about the size of the dictionaries that we grew up with and it struck me behind my left shoulder. Typical posture for a right-handed shooter would be your left side forward. So, best that we can figure is that it hit me behind my left shoulder and rolled up and struck me in the base of my skull. I don’t recall my left arm doing the work, what I remember happening is getting up off the ground off of one knee and my left arm not working. As a matter of how, I don’t know. There was so much being thrown at us. You could identify a few but when there is so much in the air there is so much you’re going to miss.

 

Theo still experiences problems with memory even though the testing he has completed put his function in the normal range.

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Theo still experiences problems with memory even though the testing he has completed put his function in the normal range.

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…and that’s when the instructor and I had a sit down after the first semester and I had to dis-enroll. And that’s when I finally started going back to the VA and saying look things haven’t gotten better on their own. And they said you know I’ve been through CAT-scan, MRIs, psychological, neurological testing, you name the test I’ve been through it. And they tell me that my memory is within normal range but yet anyone that spends the day with me knows that that’s not even remotely realistic. TV shows don’t hold my attention because I don’t know what happened yesterday. You know the little synopsis that they’ll give you, 30 seconds, without that I have no purpose in watching that show. You know unless it’s a show that’s disconnected and you can just pick up an episode and not care. You know if it’s Friends, Family Guy. And the other problem that I’ve had is doctors look at you like you’re fishing for disability. When I tell them that I don’t have the ability to cook, to grocery shop for myself, to find my car in the parking lot and things of this nature. But when you’re with them for an hour I don’t get to the point where I repeat myself, whereas with the guys in these programs, that I was with for sixteen hours a day, and they notice things. But the doctor you’re with for an hour here and an hour there doesn’t see it.

 

Theo’s mother has had to take on the role of his caregiver, which has created “a huge rift” in their relationship.

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Theo’s mother has had to take on the role of his caregiver, which has created “a huge rift” in their relationship.

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And the way that I was raised, the way that we were in the service is that you don’t complain about things, you don’t exaggerate things, you don’t look for attention. You help those that are worse, and you fix what you can and drive on. Well, that mentality is what cost me my marriage. Me trying to laugh my own things off and be there for my friends and family, I’d become so dis-attached from my own emotions that you actually stop feeling them or at least you fool yourself into it. To the point that when emotions do come up and come back they’re so overwhelming that you shut that down and you don’t know how to handle. My caregiver, my mother, last night her and I got into it and said quite a few things to each other that we felt at the moment. I love that woman dearly and wouldn’t do anything ever to hurt her but at the same time, there were things that I said that I can’t take back. And she’s done a lot for me but at the same time she doesn’t have the ability to go in and express things to people and be persistent at getting the help that we need. She tried to take so much on herself to help me and fix things that she’s breaking her own back in the process of taking that load. And it’s created a huge rift in our relationship. And her being a single parent and me being the only child, we were very close. There’s been a lot of distance there this last six eight months, has been even more than the last few years.

 

Theo has found that if he is upfront about his memory issues, people they are much more understanding.

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Theo has found that if he is upfront about his memory issues, people they are much more understanding.

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Part of it for me is that I’ve had to adapt and adjust in my memory issues so much so that I no longer hide it. Initially I was ashamed of it, I thought it would get better and I’ve worked at not allowing people to see it. That created more problems. When I’d go back in to like a hardware store or an automotive place they’d be like “Don’t you remember me, we just talked about this.” So, it’s come to the point now that anyone I deal with on a semi-regular basis I share with them very quickly up front, I had a brain injury in the service, I have short term memory loss, forgive me if I forget or if I see you outside of here  just remind me - it’s all in my head, it’s just not always accessible. And once you tell people that and they see you, they’re much more understanding. They’re more happy about the amount that you do remember than they are upset by the amount that you forgot.

 

Theo describes the bond between combat Veterans who understand each other’s experiences.

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Theo describes the bond between combat Veterans who understand each other’s experiences.

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Even at the VA hospital I’ve been through programs there that, you look around and combat veterans can generally identify each other. A lot of Vietnam era vets and some modern vets, you can tell mannerisms, things that they’re willing the share, the way that they say things. We have a large amount of guys that I’ve been in the VA with from Vietnam era that I connect with very well, it just comes naturally. Where as you can see it in each other’s eyes, you know what it’s like to actually have been in high stress situations. And then we have those that are there sharing everything about their experience with us and we’re kind of looking over at them, and it’s kind of like fishing stories. Those that talk the most, those that say the most about it, have the biggest fish, generally aren’t the ones that have done a damn thing. So those that sit there and tell you that they went out and shot 20, and did this that and the other thing, and they were blown up, you’re looking at them going oh ok, that’s cool. And you learn not to feed into it by asking questions because then they become defensive, and they start to sense that you’re detecting their bullshit, and then they start getting angry. Sometimes it’s entertaining because I’ve been with a few guys that I’ve really gotten along well with at the VA and we’ve sat there and kind of chuckled a bit, and we’re like he doesn’t shut up, alright let’s play, let’s play into this a little bit. And you get them going and the next thing you know the kid leaves and you’re looking over at the other guys and we’re kind of laughing going - those are things you don’t share. Not with somebody you don’t truly know. And if it’s somebody who hasn’t been through the same experience with you it’s very hard to find that connection that you’re willing to share details with them.