Sunday, May 22, 2011

He Says, She Says: TBI

A note about this post: The idea for this post was actually his. We talked about this exact occurrance and how neither of us knew quite what the other was going through at the time. He mentioned how unique it would be for us to lay our our different perspectives. I'm holding him to it. Here is the first of (what I hope) will be a series....   He Says, She Says, part 1... My writing's in regular font, his writing's in italics. With my fiance, the SGT as a guest part-author, we share.   Parallel tensions, parallel problems. What they do to couples. You are never alone.

She says:
   What happens when an IED goes off next to your vehicle in Afghanistan? What does it feel like? Sound like? Smell like? I've heard that our wonderful, new, armored military vehicles almost make the effect worse. The concussion wave enters the vehicle and bounces around, assaulting the occupants from every direction. Do you feel it bouncing around, or just the singular blast?  And when it's over, do you know what happened? Can you sense what it just did to your body, your head, your brain?

He says:
   It was another long boring day of route clearance in Afghanistan. Drive slow, look for bombs, try to stay awake. Our missions were a minimum of 11 hours a day. Three hours of prep in the motor pool and eight hours on the route. We'd been doing this for six months and day in and day out it all started to blur together. Only the trash on the side of the road changed. 
    We had left early in the morning while the sun was still up and made our usual maddeningly slow progress. I can't adequately describe to you how incredibly boring a job like this can be. Day after boring day of sand, heat, and endless nothingness. The day had already gone long, we operated in a battle space owned by the Brits and we noticed one of their armored vehicles pulled up on the side of the road along with a few bored looking Afghan National Police. It seemed like they were conducting a hasty traffic checkpoint where the ANP would go through the motions and search random Afghans driving by. I don't know if they ever found anything but they didn't put much effort into it. I rode in the lead truck of our convoy and being the NCO in the back who didn't really have a job I got to hop out and talk to everyone we met. I hit the open button for our heavy steel doors and listened as air hissed and the door slowly swung open. A quick peek at the ground outside and out I jumped feeling the impact of the 80 lbs of kit on my ankles and knees as I strolled over to the Brits. 
    The British soldier quickly and nimbly hopped off the tank like vehicle and climbed down. "How's it going?" "Ahh, good mate, well actually not so good, a local found a mine about a klick over there." He pointed into the general vicinity of a few walled compounds and some soft sand plowed through by vehicle tracks. "The only problem is EOD is about 8 hours out and the Afghans shot someone in a compound over there." As route clearance our job is to keep the roads open and clear away any explosive hazards that might be there. Granted this particular land mine wasn't close to the concrete we were driving on but it was impeding our allies (the Brits) from using a road to get to a close by base. To me this seemed like a no brainer: clear up to it, locate the mine, destroy it, and be on our merry way. Of course this required some clearance from higher so I called up to my boss on the net and let him know what was going on. True to form, they had to drive up and have a look for themselves.

She says:
   In a previous post, I mentioned the fear and upset when horrible things happen and you are alone. Here I will again state that I know we are lucky. I know others have experienced far worse. But this is my story, our story, and by sharing it, I want to help anyone who experiences less, the same, worse.   So let me tell you about the singular worst day in deployment #2.

He says:
    Battalion says "No go, we gotta leave it and Charlie Mike (continue mission)." As usual our higher decided that areas that hadn't seen an IED strike in over a year needed to be cleared instead. I was given the job to inform the Brits we were going to leave them and the mine for the wait. I tried to act as contrite as possible, but the Brits were understanding. We'd been leaving them in a lurch for months. Now their EOD would have to come out and scan up to the mine on foot without large armored vehicles and then dig up the mine with their hands instead of a large mechanical arm. Such was our leadership. I mounted back up and threw my helmet at the floor in disgust as I put my headset back on. "I can't believe this shit!!!" I yelled to no one in particular. My truck-mates all responded the same way. We came there to find bombs, now we had one, but we were leaving it for someone else. Frustrations like this were a daily part of my tour and the contributed to a bubbling rage about how wrong everything was going.
    We had continued on and were heading back to base. All the waiting and hand wringing had put us over the 8 hour minimum that battalion required. It was going to be a long day and now night was falling. Darkness in Afghanistan always emboldens the Taliban. All the talk about owning the night is only true to a point. We can see in the dark using night vision or thermal vision, but we can't be everywhere at once. We joked that the route is only clear so long as you can still see it. We were about to find out how true that really was.

She says:
   As I mentioned before, I had fairly recently moved into a new apartment. I had been forced to apartment hunt with my (then) boyfriend in Afghanistan. I moved with help from a co-worker and his friends. A mere 6 months later, my roommate decided to leave. But instead of the requisite 30 days notice, I received about 2.5 weeks. Rent was due Feb. 1... I was in charge of planning an event across the country for January 29. I didn't have time to search, and do not make enough to afford my apartment alone.

He says:
Everyone was hurting, the early morning, heat of the day, and just general wear and tear of a deployment was putting everyone on automatic. Six months of 4 hours of sleep will wear even the best of us down and make us complacent. "Hey SGT C, you see that box?" Our driver Muffin Top called out a large cardboard box on the side of the road. SGT C, the TC of the truck and a friend of mine was up front operating the mechanical arm we used to check culverts. I was in the back behind our CROW gunner. The CROW system is an automated weapon system that allows a gunner to stay in the vehicle and operate a machine gun with a joystick like a video game. You can now shoot bad guys zoomed in and in high def. BC the gunner was half asleep but woke up as soon as Muffin Top started talking. "Hey man, can you scan towards that box?" I told him as I shifted for a better look. "Already on it SGT D" he called back.  "Shit, I'll just run it over, SGT." Muffin Top said as he started to turn towards it. "No, let me poke at it first." SGT C swung the jerking mechanical arm on our truck towards it just as our camera zoomed in.


The world shook, a flash formed in front of my eyes, and my ears started to ring. "FUCK! We're hit." Everyone in the truck started calling out they were ok. And we quickly called up to our other trucks we were ok. My adrenaline pumping, ears ringing I realized that the CROW was down. We had no eyes and no gun up at the lead of the convoy. We'd been hit, but the truck seemed ok, my brain raced through the fog and cobwebs: shit that was a command wire. Someone pulled the trigger on it. The bad guys were still out there. I popped the hatch above me and stood up. M4 out and scanning, my NVGs had been knocked off my helmet and wouldn't turn on. I loaded a flare into my M203 grenade launcher and fired. I wanted to just open fire, there were compounds right next to the spot we were hit and someone somewhere was watching. I wanted him running, I wanted him scared, I wanted to watch him die as 5.56 rounds poured out of my M4 or from the bright flash of a 40mm HEDP grenade from my M203. All the months of slow drives and frustrations and watching my friends get blown up were going to be avenged by the accurate fire of my rifle. Quiet. The only noise I heard was a faint ringing in my ears and the sizzle of the parachute flares I fired.

She says:
   I have said that you must make your own rules for communicating during deployment. Our rules stipulate that I still tell him what is going on, what is stressing me, everything. The more I hide, the more worried he gets. In my panic, worry, and trusting love for him, I dumped my concerns out, and suggested again that maybe he move in, helping me pay for rent.  He exploded. He launched an expletive-laden tirade about how he was being forced into things and having his life decided for him. Why couldn't I just leave him the fuck alone because someone needed to think about him??     I was rocked, destroyed. By the next day, he had emailed an apology, and mailed flowers. I scoffed to my co-workers about how he wasn't sweet, he was an ass, and I deserved those flowers.   Over the next week, I forgave him, but was cautious, worried. I debated if I wanted this man to propose to me on leave like I had hoped.

He says:
   When you get blown up you don't just hop in a helicopter and fly away. You recover your truck and then drive it (if it can be driven) back to base. Our mechanics were able to get the arm stowed and we began the long drive back to base. One of our other vehicles was off route checking on something. It was driven by a young kid who been home schooled, seemed incredibly nervous to the point of shaking talking to NCOs, and who seemed petrified to be the driver of a Husky. The Husky is a scout vehicle that has only one man in it, the driver. You have to be good at it to do your job well. The terrain was mostly open desert for miles around, soft rolling sand, easy driving. Unfortunately that driver found the only hole for 8 klicks and drove right into it breaking his vehicle's axle and warping the hull. Our long night was about to get longer. 
    Four hours later at 3am we rolled into the gate of our FOB, exhausted and ready for sleep. Unfortunately we had to transfer all of our sensitive items, ammo, and explosives out of our truck and into a new one. We figured that we at least get the next day off to have our heads checked out and get some sleep. The regs said we'd get our 24 hours and checked out by the Docs. That didn't happen, 4 hours later I was putting putting my armor back on and rolling out the gate. That day is when the migraines started.
   My headaches were bad enough that I'd lay in the dark with a pillow over my head to block out any light. I was angry for no reason about small things and nothing seemed to help. "Chew aspirin, drink water, it'll get better" I told myself.  She popped up on skype, our only real way of connecting. Most days I was so exhausted I could barely carry on a conversation without falling asleep as 2200 hit. I had been getting Spam emails from some stupid company that was trying to hook guys up with Ukrainian mail order brides. I started commenting on this to Stacey and she said something. Something went off in my head. I screamed at her over Skype and slammed my laptop shut. I didn't even know why but I wanted to punch a hole through something. My roommate looked over at me "Dude you ok?"

She says:
I didn't hear much more about it until leave. I did receive an angry email at one point. It included the line "I've seen friends blown up. I've been blown up." But I didn't know what it truly meant. As we sat in my car, driving home from Vermont after some much needed R&R, he told me how an IED went off next to their vehicle. How they were ultimately lucky, but slammed around. How in the bullshit world that is the Reserves, not only did he not get medical attention, but was instead kept up late to work, and sent off on mission like normal the next day instead of receiving the mandatory 24-hour rest. Good thing we were in a traffic jam! I stared. And almost immediately said, "When did this happen?" We realized it was essentially 36-48 hours before he yelled at me.
I know, and knew already at that point, that TBI messes a person up. That rattling of your brain, even on the milder ends causes headaches, blurred vision, irritability, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), personality changes, memory loss and more. We may have dubbed it "mild", but there is nothing mild and nothing simple about a brain injury. It messes you up. Period. Almost immediately, my questions about his love melted away.

He Says:
   It took me until coming home to realize what had happened that night. When you read about TBI you think about guys getting blow off their feet like something out of Hurt Locker. Blood running out of your ears and nose, bell rung, dazed but functioning. I was in a giant armored truck, not even that close to the blast but until we started talking about it I never thought I'd had it.  Things like that don't happen to me. I'm an NCO I'm invincible. I have to be. My guys look up to me. A blast? Ha, I take those every day. Nothing wrong here, carry on. If only I had really known what was coming. Memory loss, headaches, and anger. While home on leave during the Super Bowl I had trouble putting sentences together. While everyone was joking about Big Ben or chatting about the Packer's chances I had to think about "Noun-verb-noun." I couldn't remember people's names but could recall random facts about them. My struggles turned to more anger and there were days I seethed in silence at my inability to put words together. I'm a college graduate, what the hell was wrong with me? It took months to come to terms with it. I still have trouble some days, but I'm getting better.

She says:
   In the time that has followed, I've studied TBI. We are lucky that he suffered only mild TBI (or mTBI). But "mild" is such a deceitful word. A man who rarely complained of headaches had frequent, intense headaches for at least a month. Our limited Skype dates would be cut short by a headache intense enough he had to lie down. He told me of regular ringing in his ears, and spoke of a concern that words were falling out of his head.  Unfortunately, the Reserves didn't bother to check him out until demobilization, nearly 3 months later.  
   Here again, I thank the Lord his TBI wasn't worse. Because, despite the sheer neglect and ineptitude of the Reserves, he has mostly healed. I still watch him for headaches and any other sign that things are coming back, or just not going away. I may be a nag, but I'm highly on top of things for new symptoms that could still appear. I've noticed he has a new obsession with making written lists, which I assume is a coping mechanism for a brain that just isn't quite right. I'm proud of him for adapting. But I watch and I worry. Yes, even still. Brains are tricky things, and I know he has hidden symptoms from me.    I sat in the dark during the worst of it, and I refuse to miss anything new.   I wish the Army Reserves were better. I wish they had done a better job. But if they won't, I will. 

He says:
   She'd traveled down a road she thought was familiar too, a nightly conversation, something that had happened a hundred times. How could she know what lay ahead? How could she guess what had happened? Part of a deployment is hiding what happens, hiding the bad days, never saying you got blown up, never saying you watched friends get hurt, or saw people die.  Something innocuous like a joke or a box, can change everything.

1 comment:

  1. I just found your blog and want to thank you for sharing your story. I am heartbroken for you that you didn't get the help you needed when you needed it and, at the same time, so impressed by your ability to overcome. I wish all the best for you both.