William

Age at interview: 50
Outline:

William suffered a concussion after being caught in a rocket strike blast in Iraq in 2007. This was just one of four concussions William would suffer in his 20 years of active duty. After his initial recovery he noticed that things were not the same as before, his vision was spotty and wobbly, he was fatigued easily, and he began having difficulty with communication and struggled to find words. To cope with these symptoms William worked with a speech therapist to overcome his stutter and worked on his own to get his reading comprehension from a third grade reading level back up to an 11th grade reading level.

Background:

Military branch: Marine Corps

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When William first came to after being caught in a rocket strike blast in Iraq in 2007, he felt discombobulated and disoriented and he “couldn’t see an inch in front of me.” It took two days for him to get to a hospital in Baghdad by which time he says “my eyeballs felt like they would pop out of my head.” The doctor there said he had suffered a concussion. This was not the first time he had heard this diagnosis. On an earlier deployment in 2004, William had suffered a concussion in a Humvee accident. After that incident, normal everyday actions like reading became more difficult and caused fatigue.

William experienced similar symptoms after his incident in 2007. He had bad, wobbly, vision, was seeing spots, and found he was fatigued much easier than before. “I used to run marathons, now I was smoked after one mission.” He also began to notice issues with his communication. Previously able to speak a number of languages, including Arabic and Farsi, he was increasingly unable to find words. “I can see them written in my brain but I could not extract it out of the brain. I was losing my languages, and I kept losing more and more.”

Back in the States, William took a comprehension test and was told he had a third-grade level of comprehension. He had also developed a stutter. Unwilling to accept this as his new reality he began cognitive and speech therapy and worked on his own to get his comprehension back to an 11th grade reading level. He also worked to re-qualify in certain languages and in 2009 was deployed to Afghanistan on a cultural and language team.

William suffered two more concussion incidents impacting his already injured brain before retiring from the military in 2012 after 20 years of active duty. Upon returning home he took a job with ROTC services at a local university. William says he had difficulty with reintegration especially with his vision and speech issues. He was called a “retard,” made fun of, and that it really “hurt my confidence level.”

Driven by his desire to help people, William now works in child welfare and protective services, which he likens to going out on missions when he was deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. He likes the work but says it can be trying with his condition. “It’s still difficult because I’m tired. It’s really hard for me to use all my resources in my brain to articulate what needs to be done.”

To others struggling with symptoms of concussion and traumatic brain injury, he says “Don’t get angry. Don’t get drunk. Fight. Continue the fight.”

 

William sustained a concussion and experienced vision loss after being caught in a rocket strike in Iraq.

William sustained a concussion and experienced vision loss after being caught in a rocket strike in Iraq.

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I went back to Iraq in 2007 during the surge. We had just come back from a mission and we were entering the FOB area where they have the main buildings, you know. There’s no such – we had tents. Tents for living quarters and places like that. And we had a tent for chow hall. And a rocket strike hit and I was entering the chow hall and the blast was about twelve feet from me. And when it blew up, I watched things – it was very weird. Things started to disintegrate in front of me. And then I got all loopy and I was like, I didn’t know what was going on. I kind of got knocked around a bit. You know, I landed on my butt on this side. And I’m sitting there. I can’t see, it hurts to see. And I hear somebody telling me, somebody came up to me and said you got to get out of here. But there’s no one there. It was really weird. And I came out, kind of you know, discombobulated, disoriented. And walked, you know, walked as best I could but I couldn’t see, I couldn’t see an inch in front of me. Then I got taken to the hospital and you know, we were under fire and we couldn’t get to Baghdad because it was too dangerous. And so, the next day or two, I finally got to Baghdad and saw an eye doctor because they were more worried about my vision loss than anything else. The doctor recommended that I probably had a concussion. He said you probably should go to Landstuhl and deal with that. But those guys were – I didn’t like it there when I went there before with a, you know, I mean I just didn’t like it. So, I was like, no I can go back.

 

William explains that the damage from a second TBI sustained during a rock strike is what really impacted him.

William explains that the damage from a second TBI sustained during a rock strike is what really impacted him.

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Even though I’d been injured in 2004 with the first TBI in the war with the armor and the bungee cord, I recovered quite well. It was more of a physiological. It was not, I don’t think there was any brain damage that I knew of. I mean naturally I didn’t do a neuropsych. The brain damage occurred after the rocket strike in April of 2007. That’s when, that’s when it really impacted me.

 

At first William didn’t want to leave “his guys” to get treatment, but as his symptoms worsened he was eventually evacuated.

At first William didn’t want to leave “his guys” to get treatment, but as his symptoms worsened he was eventually evacuated.

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They wanted to med evac me out and I didn’t med evac out. And I fought it because you know we were in the middle of combat and I didn’t want to leave my guys there. And it kept getting worse. You know, symptoms were like – I don’t know. I don’t know if it was PTSD, but I had, had seizures and all kinds of other issues. And I was sleepy, I was – I had cognitive issues and difficulty reading, mostly because it tired me so to read and to do things were natural.

And then finally I was med evac’ed out to Germany. I got to the hospital and I was hungry. And so, I left the ambulance area, the ER area after they put the band on me. And I walked down the hill and I went to the deli and I was trying to get something to eat. And I had another seizure and then I get carried, carted back up to the hospital. And I was asked, you know, why did I leave? You know, I was just hungry. And they told me they’d feed me. I mean we came from – there was no food in Iraq. You know, there was no ammunition. I mean, we had nothing early on in the war. So, I went through some sort of Coumadin therapy. They weren’t sure if I had a PE, they weren’t sure what it was, a blood clot, they weren’t sure what it was back then. So, I got released.

 

After coming home, William didn’t feel capable of finishing his PhD, which really hurt his confidence level.

After coming home, William didn’t feel capable of finishing his PhD, which really hurt his confidence level.

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So, I just had a rough go at it and it really hurt my confidence level. Coming back, I already knew I was brain damaged enough. You know, I knew I was diminished in my capacities and I really wanted to finish my PhD and I couldn’t. I don’t feel capable of doing that. So I just got an article published recently about Iran and its involvement in Iraq. And when I write, I’m about to publish a book too. But when I write, it takes me forever to write. Not just the emotional, but the cognitive ability is diminished. So I have an editor and she’s, she’s just a big asset to me. But she’s basically – because I’m a blown-up vet - I mean she’s helped me that way. I mean, my writing sucks and it’s really hard. And I miss words and you know, it’s not just the vision but it’s just difficult in my writing. In my job now, once I left the ROTC – I just quit. I just like – can’t deal with their shenanigans and it’s not worth it for me to deal with that kind of stuff. So I just walked away.

 

William recalls having to search for words in his head and slowly losing his command of various languages.

William recalls having to search for words in his head and slowly losing his command of various languages.

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And then when I talked to people, I searched for words in my head. I’d lose words. I started losing words. And like the Arabic translation for “friend,” there’s two, there’s two words for “friend.” And which was the most appropriate in this conversation I was searching for and I can see them written in my brain, but I could not extract it out of the brain. And I could not articulate. So, I was losing my language, my languages. And I kept losing more and more.

So, I went through a year of cognitive therapy, a year of vestibular therapy, speech therapy. I stuttered. I did not only lose my language, but I stuttered. And the stuttering got worse. The aphasia or whatever where you search for words, even in English, it got – I mean I lost all my languages. All of them. And then English was the last to go. So, like Arabic first, then French, then Farsi, then Sign, then English. Gone.

 

William says he was treated poorly by colleagues and made fun of because of his stuttering and problems finding words.

William says he was treated poorly by colleagues and made fun of because of his stuttering and problems finding words.

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I came back and I took a job at ROTC at University of Portland. These guys have never been to combat and they were over in the theatre, but they never saw any combat. And they wanted me to be the recruiting officer there. And I said well I’d rather you know, be an instructor, but whatever you want. And they made it very difficult. I still had vision problems. I had aphasia. I still had a lot of difficulties and they, they treated me, they actually made fun of me. They called me a retard. I mean the just, they, because I’d stutter – you know? I’d have trouble searching for words, you know, whatever. I stumble. You know I’m just not as capable as I used to be.

 

William noticed changes to his vision and being more easily fatigued.

William noticed changes to his vision and being more easily fatigued.

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And then I came back, but I noticed some things were different. My vision was really bad. I mean it was awful. It was kind of wobbly and I’d see spots or things in my vision. And then I tried to work. I’d go on a mission and you know I was a marathon runner before, and now I’m just like smoked. I’d go on a mission and I’m talking to people and I’m engaging. And after one small, you know mission, I’m smoked like a cheap cigar and I just don’t understand that. So, I noticed that I was fatigued a lot easier than I was before.

 

For William, the hardest thing about his injury was losing his ability to be “really sharp” about his communication.

For William, the hardest thing about his injury was losing his ability to be “really sharp” about his communication.

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I can’t communicate as well as I used to. I used to be really sharp about communication. I used to be super witty. I’ve lost that, I’ve lost a lot of that. So, I don’t have that ability to verbally spar with someone, debate, those kind of things, you know? That’s gone. Because I need so much help to – like if I wanted to be on a debate team now, I just like, I need so much. You know because I can’t pull it, I can’t recall it. It’s affected my job, my performance in my job. It’s affected my relationships, you know, with a lack of communication. I still can’t sign very well. Yeah.

 

William talks about the understanding and care he received from providers at the VA.

William talks about the understanding and care he received from providers at the VA.

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Understanding, care, therapy, physical therapy, different kinds of therapy, cognitive therapy, things like that. I just got right back into it and, you know, stuff that I needed. And I had no issues whatsoever with the VA. In fact, you hear all of this negative stuff about the VA but not from the providers. It’s from the administration and stuff.

 

To other Veterans with a TBI, William says not to get angry or drink, continue the fight, and not let people keep you down.

To other Veterans with a TBI, William says not to get angry or drink, continue the fight, and not let people keep you down.

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Don’t get angry. Don’t drink. Don’t let them have the satisfaction of keeping you down. Fight, you know, continue the fight. And they have a lot longer fight than I do; I’m fifty years old. I’m you know, they got a long time to fight. And don’t let them win.