It took almost nine years for Marine Michael Grywalsky to get the help he needed for TBI and PTSD. Without the tenacity of his wife, he may never have gotten it.
That some people think it’s okay to ask a soldier or veteran who has been in combat if he killed anyone is beyond reprehensible. For Cpl. Michael Grywalsky, USMC, veteran Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), that very question was the last straw.
Home from Iraq
Mollie Grywalsky met her husband two weeks after he returned stateside at a local gym where they both worked. She remembers their instant connection, the way they’d talk and laugh at work, and the sweet notes Michael would leave on her windshield just to say hi or to tell her he was thinking about her. Holding one of her notes in her hand, she’d smile to herself thinking how lucky she was to be dating a guy who cherished his mother not to mention the appeal of his infectious smile and dimples.
From the start, however, Mollie did notice that Michael had a hard time sleeping. He’d have nightmares and oftentimes, after only an hour or two of sleep, he’d get up and pace or stare out the front door as if something were there. He was hypervigilant and he even slept with a pistol under his pillow. Mollie hadn’t grown up around any military people so she assumed his sleeping issues, his short-term memory loss, his jumpiness, and his quickness to anger were results of his just having returned from combat and that they’d resolve themselves as he settled back home into life in Michigan "• and into the new excitement of his relationship with her.
After a year of dating, the pair married in 2005. It was a busy year. Aside from the wedding, Michael was also honorably discharged and the couple welcomed their first child. Unfortunately, Michael’s issues were not resolving themselves; in fact, they were getting worse. “He’d get so angry "• seething mad "• over trivial things like when someone cut him off in traffic or if a burger he’d ordered came without the cheese,” says Mollie. His nightmares were also intensifying. He’d cry out in his sleep, talk, and scream. His heart would race and, she remembers, many times when she was finally able to wake him from a nightmare that he would be confused and afraid and then break into uncontrollable sobs.
When Mollie suggested Michael seek help for his emotional issues as well as his sleep and memory problems, he told her he’d deal with them himself. He was a warrior and did not want to show signs of weakness.
In 2003, Michael had deployed to Iraq. There, he was attached to an Explosive Ordinence Disposal unit. His team encountered heavy gunfire and was involved in intense and dangerous raids. In August of that year, Michael was driving a humvee that was hit with an IED. His medical records show that a corpsman on the scene asked him questions that indicated a brain injury, but Michael has no recollection of that on-site evaluation. What he does remember is that although no one was killed, his buddy riding shotgun took shrapnel to the neck. He also remembers that a cooler they had in the vehicle exploded, saturating them all with water. In the wake of the explosion "• in the maelstrom of dust and noise and fear "• they all thought they were covered in blood.
The retail store, 2011
After a night of vivid and exhausting nightmares, Michael was trying to focus on his job as a retail sales rep. He hated it, but his family needed the money. His hands would sweat, his heart would race and people were everywhere, popping up behind merchandise displays and, out of the blue, tapping him on the shoulder with a question. With the images of his nightmares still pulling him down, he wasn’t prepared when one of his coworkers cavalierly asked him that reprehensible question. “So, did you kill anyone over there?” Michael lost it. He exploded in anger and tears and ended up in his boss’ office unable to get a grip on himself. The boss phoned Mollie to come get him.
The visit to the VA urgent care center that afternoon would be the first of an almost Ionesco-like quest for care. “Everything had been building and suddenly, he just broke like a dam,” said Mollie. “We were both terrified.” At the urgent care, the couple was told that Michael was probably depressed and suffering from PTSD. He also tested positive on a short TBI screening. He was scheduled for an appointment with a psychiatrist that next Monday, but then at check-out, they were told he was ineligible for care through the VA and could not have that appointment or any other. “We were told that he wouldn’t be covered for care because of the five-year rule (he’d been out of the Marines for more than five years and had never registered with the VA) and also because we made too much money.”
At first, being told on what seemed like a weekly basis that Michael was eligible for care then soon thereafter told he was not, the Grywalskys tried to cobble together the therapies he needed. When he was finally deemed eligible, he started to get good, consistent therapy for his PTSD at the VA. He was given medications to help with his depression, sleep, and anxiety. But then, at one point, they had to rush to a civilian doctor to get his prescriptions refilled after the VA told him that, in fact, there was a mistake and he was ineligible for care.
She asked repeatedly that he get care for his TBI as well, but was turned down. They had to seek a civilian neurologist, which was no easy feat since finding healthcare providers who specialize in TBI in their rural Michigan area was “absurd.” Mollie wrote her congressman and President Obama. She got calls back and reassurances. Some forward steps were taken only to be followed by several in the backward direction. Mollie felt like Sisyphus pushing that stone up the hill day after day.
Finally, in 2011, the right forms were filed and signed with the proper signatures, and Michael was awarded a 100 percent service-connected disability for his TBI, PTSD, post-concussive headaches, hearing loss, and tinnitus. He was even granted a service dog "• trained through Stiggy’s Dogs that unites military veterans with rehabilitated shelter dogs "• who has made a world of difference. “Much of our success in finally getting the services we needed was due to the indefatigable help that the Wounded Warrior Project people gave us,” says Mollie. “But looking back, I get tired and angry just thinking about everything we had to do to get care for Michael "• a Marine who served his country!”
Getting by, day to day
During those many months untangling Michael’s eligibility, Mollie was trying to hold things together. She had a full-time job, three little kids under the age of 5, and a veteran husband who needed her to be his everything.
Some days, Mollie didn’t know if she could carry on. She’d feel her head sink below the surface, the weight of water pressing down on everything. At one point, the babysitter called her at work to tell her that she needed to come home right away. Michael was sweeping the house for insurgents, muttering to two of his combat buddies as if they were right there, and motioning at his kids to keep back.
Another time, Blaine, 6, their oldest son was holding a leaf. Michael tore it out of his hand thinking it was a grenade. “Blaine worries and cries sometimes. He doesn’t want his dad to be in pain,” says Mollie. “I tell him that his daddy is a Marine and that sometimes because of being in the war he has flashbacks that scare him "• like dreaming scary stuff while you’re awake. Like me, Blaine wants to ‘fix’ everything for his dad.”
The two younger kids, 3½ and 2, are more oblivious to their father’s intense emotions and behavior, and to their mother’s stress. “I worry about the kids, of course. But we talk to them, explain things,” says Mollie. “Most of all, I tell Blaine over and over that none of this is his fault.”
The long road, 2012
Now, nine years since he returned from Iraq, the family is seeing some small glimmers of light. Michael still has nightmares, but Barrett, his service dog, wakes him up and helps keep him calm. Medications and strategies like having white boards around the house to help remember things are helping Michael get some regular sleep. And making progress with his PTSD therapist is slowly rebuilding his confidence. Recently, Michael started running with Barrett and also expressed an interest in doing yoga. “He’s making progress, but I feel so sad for him,” says Mollie. “He hates that he’s like this. He worries that he’ll be like this forever and that he’ll get early onset dementia. And he misses being in the Marines. It’s what he was good at.”
Several months ago, through the Wounded Warrior Project, Michael attended a long weekend away with four of his buddies from his unit. It was the first time they’d been reunited since their deployment ended. “I know they all had a lot of anxiety about seeing each other. They knew the reunion would bring up emotions and memories, especially from the day the humvee was hit,” says Mollie. The visit proved therapeutic for Michael. He still carries a lot of guild around from that day since he was the driver, though he knows, intellectually, that it was not his fault. “Seeing his buddies in person "• seeing that they were walking and talking and relatively okay "• was good for Mike,” she said. Mollie adds, however, that all of them have been diagnosed with PTSD and TBI.
Sharing the knowledge, and love
In addition to her now part-time job as an ultrasound tech, being a mother and the caregiver to her husband, Mollie is now vice president of the Voice of Warriors (VOW) and an active member of the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP). As VP of VOW, Mollie advocates for other veterans and their families by helping them find services and resources. She helped start VOW’s music therapy program and she does a weekly radio show where she answers questions and shares her experiences. “Getting involved in these organizations has helped me a lot,” says Mollie. She has made great friends with several of the military wives she’s met, and in fact, the wife of the passenger in Michael’s humvee has become a good friend and confidant. “I cannot tell you how important it’s been for me to have someone I can call, even on bad days … especially on bad days,” she says. “Lord, I’ve cried a lot, but having someone I can tell the whole story to, knowing she’ll understand and won’t be shocked by the darker parts … well, that is a huge relief.”
With time, patience, and support from other veterans’ wives, Mollie has learned how to help Michael "• and the whole family as they move forward with his recovery. She also knows that learning more about TBI and PTSD had equipped her to better understand her husband’s behavior.
If Mollie could share one nugget of advice to service members coming home, it would be to register at the VA. It only takes a few minutes and even if the veteran doesn’t feel as if he needs help now, he may later. She says she doesn’t want anyone else to have to battle against the five-year rule the way she and Michael did. She also emphasizes the importance of building a support system of people who understand what you are going through.
When she feels like throwing up her hands and giving up, Mollie will pause and look at her husband and the three amazing kids they created together. “I am so thankful for every day with him. I will take any bad day with him rather than one without him,” she says. “And, through him, I have found a voice and something I am so passionate about "• which is helping veterans and their families. I fully believe this is what I was meant to do.”