My husband, Steven, is a retired Navy SEAL who during his 20-year career engaged in over 250 combat operations. He was awarded the Silver Star and three Bronze Stars, among other honors.
He retired about two and a half years ago and was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and a myriad of physical ailments.
Most of what I’ve read about PTSD in veterans lumps TBI with PTSD, but TBI should perhaps stand alone in treatment and support.
Whereas PTSD can get worse before it gets better, it can get better; there is hope. With TBI, there is no hope of recovery; the brain is damaged and one must live with the consequences for the rest of their life.
The military elite — training and operating at numbers less than professional athletes or Harvard graduates — become prisoners of their own thinking.
Brains they once controlled, with psychological strength we normal humans cannot imagine, are now betraying them. What they have done and experienced is unimaginable; more dangerous, selfless and heroic than any of us can imagine, or at least than I had imagined.
Tough guys saving, rescuing, protecting now in need of help. It’s not a big jump to see a risk of suicide.
Where do we begin to help?
Let’s start at the Veterans Administration.
Our experience has been that the veteran is expected to keep track of all medications, issues, diagnoses and ask for services. My husband spent a month at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center before retirement to be evaluated.
We know what works, and it’s mostly alternative forms of medicine such as acupuncture and Botox for pain; but with my working full time, he was left alone for appointments.
With his short-term memory loss he would forget why he was at appointments and, with so many appointments, what area of medicine he was even in that day. I began to take time off from work for his appointments to act as his memory and advocate.
I was appalled at the disrespect for his service (he was often shamed and belittled) and the volume of medications prescribed.
He has had to turn down controlled pain medications at nearly every appointment, having observed problems with addiction in fellow special operators.
It’s not a big jump to see a risk of addiction, which is a risk factor for suicide.
The next step in building a support system would be the veteran’s family, of course.
In our case, not only is there lack of understanding and support from his immediate family, we are met with judgment and expectation.
There is absolutely no conversation. It’s much easier to be around for the award ceremonies than the dark, chaotic and confusing times. This is more common than not.
So where do we go from here?
At the macro level, start understanding and talking about TBI, as with other conditions, bringing it into mainstream thought and out of dark, secret and shameful corners.
Those in contact — whether medical, legal or other professions — must acknowledge, respect and understand veterans, and in doing so provide the most relevant and poignant care.
We have stopped looking for support where it’s just not going to be and have stopped being frustrated with our own expectations in ourselves and others.
Steven founded Camp Brown Bear, a program to help veterans suffering from PTSD/TBI, as well as middle-school boys from fatherless and disadvantaged homes.
We learn to live in a new way — one day at a time — operating with TBI in full awareness in every aspect of our lives. We are celebrating past accomplishments while clothed in a new type of hope.
Dr. Sabrina Brown is associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Kentucky and director of the Kentucky Violent Death Reporting System. Reach her at email@example.com.
Need help? Contact the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org or 800-273-8255.