A Flashlight Out of the Dark

Victoria Tilney McDonough
BrainLine
A Flashlight Out of the Dark

Army vet Timm Lovitt finds that reaching out to help other vets is his own best medicine.

It’s hard to forget the day you could have died. For Army veteran Timm Lovitt that day was September 14, 2005. Sure, his body and brain had been rocked by multiple blasts during his two deployments, but looking back, he figures that that Wednesday when his humvee was attacked by a suicide car bomb was the “big one.”

An infantryman in the 10th Mountain Division, Timm and his unit received intelligence about a slew of car bombs in the environs of Baghdad. Out on patrol in their up-armored Humvee — a humvee that is bullet-resistant and can withstand most minor explosions without damage — they scouted the streets and stopped frequently to do surveillance and interact with the locals. Three times they learned a car bomb had exploded minutes after they had departed. Then an Iraqi checkpoint was blown up. The unit immediately put a security perimeter around it.

“We were stopping and checking vehicles and doing surveillance when I saw it,” says Timm. The car had a long wire snaking out of its front grill and up through the driver’s window. It was about 10 feet away. Timm focused his gun on it. Then time stopped and a roaring ball of flame, dust, and ash enveloped their Humvee. The enormous military vehicle tipped five feet and almost rocked over. Like a handful of dice, Timm and his men were jumbled around the vehicle. Thrown from his seat, Timm hit his head on the ammunition along one side of the truck. The blast then deflected off the Humvee and hit a wall, crumbling it into a pile of stones.

There were no “serious” injuries, according to Timm. The gunner suffered flash burns on his face, another soldier sustained some surface shrapnel wounds on the back of his head, Timm’s head and body ached. But everyone was conscious, and no one was losing significant amounts of blood.

Once they were towed back to base, they loaded and prepped another truck for the following morning. There was no time to go to the medical bay, only time to eat and fall into bed before the next patrol. “Even if we’d known what a TBI was and that getting checked out would have been the prudent thing to go, there was no time,” says Timm. “And anyway, no one wants to have something wrong with him. Any injury can be a detriment to the mission.”

Timm joined the Army when he was 18. It was a way to pay for college and to get to see the world. From 2003-2004, he deployed to Afghanistan and to Iraq from 2005-2006. Soon after his second deployment, Timm retired. He’d seen enough, been through enough. And he wanted to get back to his wife and help raise his baby son.

Drink more water

Timm started feeling symptoms of a brain injury right after the blast. He experienced severe headaches every day for months. He felt nauseated, especially when he first woke up, and he had fits of anger and moodiness. But being overseas with these types of symptoms and being at home with them is quite different. “Sure, you get angry, but you’re in combat. You’re always on, the adrenaline pumping. Who’s going to point you out as excessively angry when your job is to kill and defend?” Timm asks rhetorically. “And as for the headaches, well, when you’re in the desert, you think it’s heatstroke. You tell yourself it’s heatstroke, you minimize things … and you drink more water.” He joked that drinking more water is the Army’s remedy for most everything.

Once home, Timm started to notice — or accept — his symptoms in earnest. The headaches persisted as did the dizziness and nausea. It was at work and in school that his deficits started to impact him the most. “In high school, I could read and retain everything. I got great grades without much effort,” he says. Now, retired from the Army and in college, it took him three times as long to do his work and he had a hard time remembering what he’d read one page or even one paragraph back. “I also couldn’t seem to find or get to class on time. I forgot books and papers and assignments. The sticky notes were accumulating everywhere.”

Worst of all, Timm found he experienced some periods of deep depression, despair, and anger. He worked in real estate after he returned home, but a year at the job was more than he could stomach. “It’s hard to hear people whine about colors and room sizes when I’d just seen buddies killed in combat,” he says.

Comparing notes

Two years after he retired, Timm met up with some of his buddies from the 10th Mountain Division. Comparing notes, he found that they also had symptoms of mild TBI — problems with headaches, memory, planning, behavior, and emotions. “They told me to go to the Veterans Administration (VA) or everything would just get worse,” he says.

It took twelve months of being “poked and prodded and tested, tested, tested” to get diagnosed with TBI. Doctors also diagnosed him with PTSD, back injury, and tinnitus (ringing in the ears). Like many soldiers then, Timm had never had baseline neuropsychological testing before he deployed.

For the tinnitus, Timm has learned to try to drown out the constant ringing with other sounds. “I listen to a lot of music. A lot of music,” he says. The ringing in his ears is not incredibly loud but it’s noticeable. He has to talk louder sometimes and, in addition to the music, he often has the TV or radio on even if he’s not paying attention to it. The gurgling of his big aquarium has also proved to be a soothing distraction.

He did receive occupational and physical therapy through the VA, but he found it impersonal and not particularly helpful. He was given a lot of information packets. “I mean, I function fine. I can boil water and make food,” he says. “My problems are more cognitive.”

The biggest boon for him in therapy was learning about the “magic” of smartphones. His VA rehab therapists educated him about PDAs and how they can help with organization, planning, and memory. Timm promptly went out and bought a smartphone, which helps him remember appointments, commitments, and even random thoughts and ideas — as long as he remembers to input them into the hand-held device.

A flashlight in the dark

Although Timm was finding his way back into civilian life — in school and with his wife, child, and friends, he came to understand, however, that the memory of war is never left behind.

“Every once in a while, you go into the dark room,” says Timm, trying to explain his bouts with depression, one in particular in 2007 after he learned three soldiers whom he’d mentored had all been killed in action. “When the days are dark, they are very dark.”

Over and over again, Timm’s doctors offered to prescribe drugs to help manage his symptoms. Drugs for depression and PTSD, drugs for his headache and back pain, drugs for the tinnitus. “I didn’t — and still don’t — want meds,” he says. “I don’t want to numb myself. The meds may dull the pain, but they also dull the personality. No thanks.”

Although incredibly difficult at times, Timm found that the way out of the “dark room” was to reach out to other veterans who understood what he was going through. “I found that connecting with others who ‘got it’ was my way to flip the switch, my way to get my hands on that the flashlight. My flashlight out of that dark space.”

Through his work at the Student Veterans of America, where he worked during college to help disseminate information to other student veterans, Timm became involved with Vet Corps, an AmeriCorps program. In his role there, he helps veterans achieve their higher education goals by helping them work with college certifying officials or veterans reps; navigate the GI Bill and financial aid office; and provide connections with federal, state, and local veterans benefits.

Now a TBI field contractor for the Washington Department of Veterans Affairs, Timm helps other vets like himself navigate the college environment and raises awareness among staff and civilians on campus. This past year, he travelled to 32 different colleges to teach staff, faculty, and students (vets and civilians) about TBI and the ways it can affect a student’s work and personal life. “The more people who become aware of the ramifications of a TBI — like the need for accommodations for studying or exam taking, or understanding that vets may tend to isolate from others — the more we can do to help keep student vets thriving instead of giving up, dropping out, or worse case, becoming desperate, suicidal,” he says.

Beyond the college campus

In 2010, Timm, two OEF/OIF vets, three Vietnam vets, one career Coast Guardsman, and the Washington state attorney general were invited to Israel to visit Brothers for Life, a not-for-profit that helps wounded vets help other wounded vets. Taking what they learned in Israel, Timm and some colleagues created their own not-for-profit called The Veterans Initiative Foundation. Although still in its early stages, the foundation serves as an umbrella for various projects that are basically non-traditional support groups.

“There is still such a stigma about support groups, especially in the military — about asking for or needing help. But being around people who understand works,” says Timm. “Part of what I do is help these guys and gals better understand their injury by sharing my experiences. Sharing helps all of us understand a bit more, helps us feel less alone, less frustrated.”

The first of the foundation’s projects is called BRIGHT — Brothers Reconnecting in Growth Healing Trauma. Once a month, a group of vets go on an adventure like canoeing, fishing, or flying remote-controlled airplanes. There’s time for recreation, but they also stay in a big house and have lots of time to hang out, talk, and share. There is a professional counselor present, but, according to Timm, the conversations tend to happen more organically. The vets find they can finally relax, say what sometimes seems unspeakable, unsharable. The weekends have proven to be not merely a band-aid or getaway, but a way for veterans to learn from each other how to successfully transition from military to civilian life, especially with a TBI and/or PTSD.  

The foundation has a woman’s version of BRIGHT in the works, too. “We don’t want our women vets to be marginalized or forgotten,” says Timm.

Other foundation projects have included conservation programs like cleaning out rivers or collecting invasive fish species and donating the job’s stipend to local food banks; hosting movie nights at a local Ronald McDonald House; and renovating the house of a wheelchair-bound Vietnam vet. “It’s good, hard, physical work — what we need,” says Timm. “These projects give us purpose, but they also give us time to talk, to relax with others who understand the ongoing physical and emotional challenges that come from being in combat.” Timm adds that getting vets involved in these sorts of projects can help rescue some of them who don’t know where to turn, who may be close to hitting bottom.

Finding their way

“You can either become a victim of your traumatic experiences, or use them. I want to use what I’ve learned to help other people,” says Timm. “I’m not sure I’ll ever get back to my ‘old normal,’ probably not. But I can live with the headaches and nausea. I can live with the occasional dark descent. I accept them as part of the gift of my life. And there have certainly been a lot of people before me, people with far more to contend with.”

Timm knows that as long as he keeps reaching out and connecting with others — he and his fellow vets will find their way. And, of course, continue to drink a lot of water.

BrainLine

Posted on BrainLine May 6, 2011

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