Helping Marines Get Unstuck

Helping Marines Get Unstuck

Using a common sense approach, Major Charles Hall helps injured Marines find their way forward.

Marine Major Charles Hall often waits at a coffee shop or a local diner, wondering about the person who is coming and how he will be able to help.

“My job is basically to help these young Marines get unstuck,” says Hall, a reservist on active duty who deployed to Iraq in 2004-2005. Hall is a District Injured Support Coordinator (DISC) for the Marine Corps’ Wounded Warrior Regiment — for South Carolina and Georgia. “There are 30 of me around the country and we each cover a few states,” he says. What he and the other 29 DISCs do is to serve as non-medical case workers for — in most instances — medically retired Marines trying to reintegrate into civilian life. A quarter of their clients are Marines who are not medically discharged but who, for example, experienced one or more blast injuries and thought they were fine at the time only to realize later that they were dealing with debilitating symptoms.

Hall will meet with a wounded Marine about a month after he or she has returned from Camp Lejeune or Camp Pendleton where the Marine will most likely have been in rehab for about six months. “We take a common sense approach to helping these men and women get the support and resources they need,” he says. “We work with local VAs to set them up with the appropriate rehab services — be it occupational therapy for a brain injury, psychological support for combat stress, physical therapy for a new prosthetic, or support for a substance abuse issue.”

Picture the young Marines Hall meets. Most of theses guys are in their early or mid 20s. They were kids when they left, and now they are injured and back home transitioning to veteran status, with wounds like TBI, PTSD, a lost limb, injuries that can’t be “fixed.”

Hall starts to get to know a new “client” by studying his record to make sure the Marine was discharged properly. Maybe he can help the Marine get a well-deserved medal retroactively, or better understand that his brain was legitimately damaged by a blast injury and that he is not “crazy.” He’ll also do a comprehensive needs assessment to make sure he understands the scope of what this individual will need, physically and emotionally, in the short- and long-term. But most importantly, before he can help the Marine put any of these resources in place, he has to get to know the person and his family.

Sharing experiences, solving problems

Hall usually meets the Marine at a coffee house or restaurant — somewhere neutral, safe. The next meeting may be at the Marine’s home where Hall can meet the wife and kids, the mother, the father, the roommate — to understand how this Marine lives now and where and how he wants to move forward as he recovers.

“The vast majority of the men and women we work with want our help,” says Hall. “They tend to open up to us. We are active duty Marines; there is commonality. We get it. They want to tell their stories, to try to better understand the hard things they are dealing with.” And talking to another Marine is a world apart from talking to someone whom they know has no inkling about what they experienced in combat and now back home in the wake of those adrenaline-filled months and years.

“The guys we worry the most about are the ones who are harder to track. The ones who don’t realize they have a brain injury that is throwing obstacles in their path, the ones who have TBI and PTSD who think they can go it alone,” says Hall. “Sometimes it takes months or even years for someone to realize he cannot move forward without help. Fortunately, we get a lot of our guys by word of mouth, one Marine to another.”

Hall may meet with someone who doesn’t understand why he can’t do what he used to do. He is disorganized, can’t find anything, can’t remember where he’s supposed to go. He has nightmares and can’t sleep more than two hours at a time. As the weeks pile up without restorative sleep, he gets more anxious, more depressed. He keeps the curtains closed. He hates going out because it’s bright and noisy, the world seems to thrum around him and sitting for a short meal in a restaurant is exhausting. He tells his friends to go without him.

“I see from your record that you were knocked out of your Humvee in 2006,” Hall may say to this client. “Did you ever get checked for a traumatic brain injury?”

“No, what’s that?” the Marine may answer.

Hall will explain, and then after more talk and encouragement, he’ll arrange for the Marine to contact his local VA for a medical follow up. Perhaps his brain injury went undiagnosed, resulting in changes in cognition and behavior that the Marine does not understand. “With their consent,” says Hall, “we can help these Marines connect with the health providers they need.”

Other times, Hall may meet a Marine who has lost his way, his motivation gone. He’s simply stuck. He has a brain injury and severe PTSD, and his new prosthetic arm hurts. He can’t do what he used to do. Now he can’t deal with school or work; he’s living off disability.

“What are you going to be doing in 10 years?” Hall will ask. “You’ll be in your mid-30s by then. Do you still want to be sitting on your sofa playing Call of Duty?”

Hall may arrange for this “stuck” Marine to attend a one-week retreat through the Midwest Marines Foundation’s FOCUS program, where he can talk, listen, and share stories with other Marines like him. Finally, he can let his guard down and breathe. “At the end of the week, the Marine is usually unstuck,” says Hall. “He may be working on a resume or looking at a school to apply to. His week away made him realize that he’s not the only one and that his life is not over. It’s just different.”

Finding help: urban and rural

For Marines who live near cities or in more urban areas, finding services is easier. Their local VA may be in town and getting the regular outpatient care they need is a non-issue. But for thousands of other Marines who live in rural areas across the country, finding the help they need — on a regular, systematic basis — can be challenging.

“In rural Georgia, for example, the VA could be three or more hours away, and the local options are limited,” says Hall. “What we can do in these cases is to help the VA connect to and stay in consistent contact with local providers so that these Marines receive the long-term care they need, making their trips to the VA less frequent.

“Where I’m located, in Greenville, SC, the local VA is in Columbia, a good two hours away. That’s a trek,” says Hall. “We connect our Marines to local outpatient programs like Roger C. Peace Rehabilitation Hospital. Peace’s Outpatient Brain Injury Program emphasizes a rehabilitative approach involving individual and group therapies centered on the patient and family within the treatment center, community, and home. The center’s advanced outpatient programs focus on life skills, higher cognitive abilities, and re-entry to school or work.

Hall is excited about a new resource, the Peace House, which will open soon. Modeled after the Ronald McDonald and Fisher Houses, Peace House will provide a low-cost or free stay to families while their loved ones are receiving rehabilitation services at Roger C. Peace Rehabilitation Hospital. Hall has been involved in its creation and in the programs it will offer — from arranging for volunteers to take residents and their families out for a weekly meal in town to volunteers spending time with Marines and families to help them relearn to interact with others in the community. “The more we can get our guys and girls out into the community, doing something, anything, the better and more quickly they will move forward, no matter their injury,” says Hall.

Finding that camaraderie again

Hall and the other DISCs nationwide know that no matter where they live, Marines who are retired or on medical leave miss the camaraderie of the Corps. Getting out and active with other Marines is often the best medicine. Hall says that in his communities he works to develop a bond and a network among his Marines and their families. “They miss the camaraderie of the Marine Corps, so we try to model that,” he says. He plans several events a year for the Marines and their families, and when he can, he gets the VA involved. “We get blocks of tickets for a baseball game in the summer and a hockey game in the winter. We’ll add in food and other activities to make it a big event. We might have a military day at the zoo; the kids like that.”

Hall also lets his Marines and their families know about couples retreats like the one he arranged for seven couples this past summer who spent a week at a fishing lodge in Alaska at a marriage enrichment program. He’ll also organize a yearly deer hunting weekend with 10 guys, a trip which he usually attends. He also puts his wounded warriors — and their families — in touch with the many adaptive sports organizations like Project Healing Waters or the Freedom Team of Wounded Warriors through Achilles International where veterans can fly fish, ski, rock climb, or train to run a marathon.

For Hall and the other DISCs, it’s truly gratifying to see a young Marine who thought his life was over after being injured overseas race down a mountain for the first time on adaptive skis, or feel at peace fly fishing with a couple buddies on a lazy river. These activities do wonders to help injured service members gain confidence and independence, while adapting to life after injury.

Thanks to …

Hall remembers one Marine who was injured in Iraq. He sustained a significant TBI in addition to some life-changing physical injuries. After he was medically retired, the young man moved around a lot, finally settling in South Carolina where Hall met him. Helping him get his financial issues in order and follow up with the VA for rehabilitation for his TBI and other injuries was the easy part. Hall kept talking and listening but it seemed as if the young Marine just didn’t understand that what he needed most was to re-engage in the world. It was like he was slipping around on ice. He’d make some progress in one direction, only to slide backwards and fall back into his self-induced isolation. He didn’t have a family to push and encourage him, so he felt especially stalled.

“Finally, after about two years, it was as if a light came on,” says Hall. “It was as if he woke up one day and decided that enough was enough.”

The Marine loved anything mechanical and he missed the camaraderie he had so enjoyed in the Marines. Hall helped him connect with a foundation in Columbia, SC called Celebrate Freedom. Now, the once-stuck Marine volunteers in schools, giving lively presentations and teaching kids about aviation and engineering. 

Hall often thinks about that Marine and many of his other clients whom he has helped get back on track. Some of them email him to touch base, let him know what they’re up to, “thanks to him.”

Waiting at a coffee house to meet a new Marine, Hall may wrap his hands around a warm mug and think that perhaps “thanks to them,” he has become, with each overlap and intersection and story shared, a more compassionate human being.

Posted on BrainLine November 16, 2012.