Losing the Army Way of Life to PTSD and TBI

Rosemary Rawlins for BrainLineMilitary.org
Losing the Army Way of Life to PTSD and TBI

“I was injured about 100 feet from where Bob Woodruff was injured,” says Army Staff Sergeant Brian Pearce.  “Even after Woodruff's injury,” says Pearce, “we didn't learn anything, did we? Same traffic control point — same issues.” I had asked Brian about his brain injury and he was ready to talk. “I remember that day like it was yesterday. I remember the IED going off, the feel, the smell of it … then waking up in the hospital and hearing my wife talking to a doctor, and I wondered: What the hell is she doing in Iraq?”

I'm sitting around the square wooden table in Brian's suburban kitchen in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with his wife, Angie, and their two teenagers, daughter Jordan and son Logan. Every family member is eager to share their story — as if talking might release a measure of their cavernous pain. When Logan mentions how he misses military life, I ask, “Would you rather live the army life or civilian life?”

“Army,” says Brian immediately. Solidly built, with a buzz cut and thick glasses, he says, “I don't blame the Army for what happened to me. I knew the risks. I knew what I signed up for.” Those risks became reality on October 20, 2006, when Brian's Humvee hit that IED (improvised explosive device). The blast shot shrapnel underneath his helmet to the back of his brain — his right occipital lobe. A shard of shrapnel damaged his optic nerve.  Brian was declared legally blind on July 23, 2007, and lives with a traumatic brain injury.

“Army,” says 16-year-old Jordan, less emphatically. “Even though I have made some of the best friends of my life here.”

“Army!” says 15-year-old Logan. He stands at attention to make his point, “I adjusted to civilian life because I had to adjust. I don't like it here. I loved the military life. I would go back to Alaska in a minute. I don't have anything in common with anyone in school here.” For a moment, everyone is silent.

“And you, Angie?” I ask. Angie married Brian after dating him for only two weeks, yet their marriage has lasted 18 years through trauma, loss, and transition. “Army,” she says. “I still feel isolated. People here in civilian Mechanicsville think they understand us, but they don't.” Angie talks about missing the easy way Army families understand military buzzwords, protocol, and culture, the way they jump to help each other out because they share the same values of pride and service to country.

Brian Pearce joined the U.S. Army in June 1992. After eight years of deployments to Somalia, Bosnia, and Honduras, Brian took a service break. He tried police work but found he could not pay his bills even while working three jobs in Ohio. He reenlisted in 2004 and took the family with him all the way to Alaska.

“We were there a little over two years,” Angie says wistfully. “Logan had his fifth birthday in the car on the way to Alaska. We were living near Fort Wainwright where Brian was stationed, in the North Pole, right down the street from the Santa Claus house. We had great friends.” Those friends were mostly military, too, including the McCumber family: Jami and Brian McCumber and their two children. “Jami and I cooked for each other, confided in each other, and watched each other's kids. We hung out all the time.”

In July 2005, Angie recalls, Brian deployed to Iraq and served in the Mosul area for a full year. He returned home to Alaska in June 2006 to prepare for the Brigade's homecoming but then he was called back. His duty was extended 120 days in a new area of responsibility, the Sunni Triangle.

Angie's smile fades. “On October 20, 2006, I got the call at 5:45 a.m. Alaskan time,” she says. “Jami ran to the house and never left my side. When she saw that my phone was ringing off the hook, she took me to her house and watched my kids."  Angie needed to help care for Brian and Jami offered to take in Angie's children.  "I had to get Power of Attorney and temporary custodial rights for Jami so my kids could live with her. I had IDs made, so they had insurance; and I transferred my kids into Jami's school so they would be close to her. This is what military friends do. Then I had to wait until Brian was stateside so I could fly to Walter Reed hospital to be with him. That took four days.”

Angie's departure was hard on her children and especially hard on her son, Logan, who was only seven and had ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). Logan rarely left his mother's side. An intense boy with an active imagination, he grew fearful that his father was dead, and he missed his mother. “I felt really sad when my friend's dad returned home from his deployment and my dad didn't,” he said. Logan's older sister, Jordan, who Brian calls “a social butterfly and mother to all,” tried to help Logan cope. She stuffed down her fears and pushed through each day waiting for her parents' return.

They never came back. Angie stayed by Brian's side as he slept in a drug-induced coma after his brain surgery. There were complications. “Care in the ICU was phenomenal, except for one bad incident,” Angie said. “A feeding tube that was inserted improperly asphyxiated Brian. Thankfully, a good nurse happened to check on him and saw he was blue. Then suddenly there were seventeen doctors working on him until midnight.” Brian survived, but Angie was livid and stressed to the max. For seven weeks, she caught a few hours of sleep in a motel room each night after sitting on a metal chair next to Brian's bed for 15 to 18 hours a day. She told me she would never “unsee” the horrific injuries she saw at Walter Reed while waiting for Brian to wake up.

About two months after his injury, Brian was transferred from Walter Reed hospital to the Polytrauma Unit of McGuire Veteran's Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia. On their first day at McGuire, they discovered that Brian had severe vision impairment in addition to his severe TBI. The world appeared to Brian as if he were looking through a straw — a tiny picture surrounded by black. Later they would learn he had cortical blindness (His eyes work fine, but the signals from his eyes have trouble making it to his brain.), along with hearing loss, a seizure disorder, an REM sleep disorder, and PTSD.

Jordan and Logan were reunited with their father on December 18, 2006. Angie arranged to have the McCumbers bring her children to her and Brian from Alaska. “I remember the very day they walked into the VA,” Brian says. “A light came on when they hugged me and when they were with me.”

Brian spent about one month receiving in-patient care at McGuire, attending kinesio-therapy, physical therapy, recreational therapy, occupational therapy, and mental health, speech, and vision sessions. He was discharged in January 2007 to out-patient care but still attended all of these therapy sessions.

Angie was now managing Brian's outpatient care at McGuire, setting up a rental home for the family in Mechanicsville, enrolling her children in school, and juggling a thousand things at once. But it wasn't all the work that made life difficult; it was Brian's behavior. The injury to his brain left him frustrated, angry, and erratic. Because of his PTSD, a popping noise or specific smell could propel him back to the battlefield. He once grew agitated at Walmart while shopping with the family. His eyes glazed over, and he suddenly began screaming, “Go now!” When Angie tried to calm him down, he yelled, “Fuck off,” as he rushed her and the kids out of the store. Angie drove her rattled family home. Later, he told Angie it was the smell of perfume that threw him back to a street market in Iraq where he sensed danger.

Brian also had nightmares and frequently misinterpreted what was said to him. Loud arguments often broke out in the house with Angie acting as referee.

Logan grew angry and anxious. In addition to his ADHD, he was later diagnosed with high functioning Asperger's, which can make communication difficult. “I was mad at my dad for getting hurt,” Logan said, “because he promised me he would be okay and would come home and be my dad. And I almost lost him. I wanted it to be like before — to go hunting and fishing with him.” Logan had also lost his military family — his friends on base who might have understood the situation better than the teenagers in suburban Richmond. When I asked him about his friends now, he said, “I don't really like being around other people. My sister is social enough for both of us. I'm a homebody.”

Jordan did make new friends and seemed to be coping well at school in Virginia. She continued to compartmentalize her feelings, but there were a lot of adjustments to make at once. “It was hard,” she says, “trying to fit in at a new school. All those kids grew up together.” At age ten, she brought home a friend who freaked her father out. Brian demanded that her friend leave the house. Later Angie learned that something about this girl sparked disturbing thoughts in Brian of a female suicide bomber in Baghdad.

Meanwhile, Brian and Logan kept arguing; they fed off each other. “If I was boneheaded, he'd be boneheaded,” Brian said. Angie tried to get Brian to counseling, but he hated it. “I thought everybody was wrong but me,” he said. “I wanted to be on active duty. I felt angry and lost. My PTSD grew worse.” Angie tried to keep the family going, she planned outings, but Brian was often sullen or uncooperative.

Between 2007 and 2010, the family tiptoed around Brian. Angie and the kids tried not to upset him. They said they agreed with him even when they didn't. They always did whatever he asked, and they tried to assure him that everyone was safe when they sensed a flashback coming. Brian's cognitive deficits, nightmares, and erratic behavior kept every family member on edge. Because he could not see, and because of his other deficits, Brian could not work, so he often retreated to his room to listen to music — the one thing that would calm him down and take his mind off his troubles.

By age eleven, Logan had grown to be as hyper-vigilant, distrusting, and jumpy as his dad. He had trouble in school and fought with other kids.   When a fight escalated one night after he talked back to his dad, Logan screamed, “I wish I was never born!” as he banged his head against the wall. This incident was a turning point for Angie. “I could not believe what I was hearing from my son,” she said.

Angie found a therapist who Logan could relate to. Logan and his family do not feel understood by civilians — and that includes civilian health care providers. But this therapist's ex-husband was a veteran with PTSD. Eventually, Angie and Jordan also met with Logan's therapist, and it was determined that Logan, Jordan, and Angie all suffered from secondary PTSD. As I sat in the Pearce family kitchen, I wondered how many family casualties were out there — not soldiers, but family members suffering along with their soldiers.

When asked about therapy, Jordan says, “Counseling helped some, but medicine really helped.” Logan agreed. Every family member went to counseling and started medication for depression and anxiety. Both Angie and Jordan realized how much the last five years had beaten them down. Angie was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a condition brought on by overactive nerves that generate chronic aches and tenderness all over. And her emotional pain ran as deep as her physical pain. Angie finally realized that the Brian she had married in Ohio died in Iraq. She experienced ambiguous loss — a loss without closure because someone you love is still with you, yet radically changed.

Brian's behavior affected other relatives as well. Over the next year, several close family members would drift away due to arguments about Brian's inappropriate behavior. Some relatives said Brian was blaming his behavior on TBI and PTSD. Arguments escalated, and family members took sides. Then, after a major blowout argument between Angie and Brian, Angie decided she had had enough, too. “I had an epiphany,” she said. “I thought: Yes, it is horrible that he was wounded, but it's not all about him. I'm sick and tired of it. Either we pick up the pieces and move forward or we don't. He has to make choices, and he has to have consequences. I can't make him go to therapy, and if he doesn't want to be better for the kids and me, it will be what it will be.”

The change in Angie's behavior did not go unnoticed. Brian said it wasn't long before he woke up one day and decided he didn't want to live like this anymore either. “I realized I was driving her away, and I didn't want to lose my family. I noticed Angie had stopped fighting me. She stopped pushing me to go to therapy,” Brian said. “I realized that the more people told me to do things, the more I would not do it."

“If there's a hero, it's her,” Brian said, looking at his wife. “It's not me. I'm not a hero. I'm just a guy who was doing his job. She kept the family together. I wouldn't be here if it weren't for her.”

Brian accepted responsibility and started on a path of self-improvement. “I grew up with the belief that: If you don't talk about something, it goes away. I've since learned that the more you talk about what's bothering you, the better you are — you're not hiding anymore.” Brian's outlook brightened just a bit, and then a bit more in 2013 when he received a guide dog, a big black lab named Gunner.

Brian, who's legally blind, with Gunner, a guide dog that helps him navigate life with PTSDGunner and Brian are a team. If Brian is out in public and suddenly feels a sense of panic, he gives the dog one command and Gunner leads him safely to the nearest exit. When Brian has a nightmare and calls out or kicks his feet, Gunner throws his big paws across Brian's chest in a doggie hug to interrupt the bad dream.

“Actually,” Angie says, “Gunner provides a sense of security for the whole family.” He's also given Brian a new purpose. Brian has become a speaker for America's VetDogs, an organization that serves the needs of veterans with disabilities from all eras who have honorably served their country.

Angie has also moved on and has begun to take better care of herself. A few years ago, she didn't think she could return to work, but she completed her Bachelor's in Business Administration and Health Services and now works from home for The Quality of Life Foundation as a family support coordinator for families of wounded veterans. She is a perfect fit for this organization, whose mission is to “focus on meeting quality of life needs of family members so they can continue to focus on their hero's recovery.” Angie says it feels good to give back.

Life has calmed down considerably since 2012 when Brian recommitted himself to his own health and to his family. Jordan says she's happy with her life and her friends, and Logan is repairing his relationship with his dad.

Brian was found unfit for duty in November 2007, and because of his injuries he can no longer do the work he loves. Traumatic brain injury robbed Brian of his cognitive abilities and his sight. For years, it robbed him of his identity, but he's fighting back now and reshaping his life.

All the Pearces miss Army life — the camaraderie, the sense of community and common purpose. They not only lost the stability a healthy father would provide but also an entire way of living — the extended family that the Army creates.  But they have managed to keep their own family intact. After years of struggle, they've found ways to adjust, and to help the veterans they feel deeply connected to.

Angie wishes people would understand that every brain injury is different and that TBI and PTSD affect the entire family. She wishes the media would not blow PTSD out of proportion. “The media portrays soldiers with PTSD as trigger happy and dangerous,” she said, “and that's just not true in the majority of cases.”

Jordan, wise beyond her years, perked up. “Brain injury is invisible, so just because someone looks normal and talks to you and seems like a regular person — that doesn't mean that they aren't going thru cognitive and emotional difficulties that you can't see,” she said.

When I ask Brian if he's in a good place now, he says, “No. By that I mean I am a work in progress. I want to be better. I don't ever want to quit being better than I was the day before. I want to be a better dad, husband, and friend. People always think that if I could have anything back, I'd want my eyesight, but that's not it. If I could have one thing back, it would be my thought process. But, hey, I'm on the right side of the dirt, so I'm good.”

“Logan, are you feeling better these days?” I asked.

“Now I am, because my life is what it's going to be. Dad was doing his job, so I can't be mad at him for it. Now we go catfishing together. It's fun. I was so frustrated and angry at first, but counseling helped a little bit.” He pauses, looks at his dad, and adds, “It made us realize that we both don't like counseling.”

Brian laughs. “Yeah," he says. "Life is one big counseling session.”

Posted on BrainLine May 19, 2015.