In Their Boots,"Fractured Minds"

Four soldiers navigate the difficult path of recovery from TBI.

I feel sad every time that I look at myself in the mirror and... I look perfectly competent... and I am not. And that's why I don't like to look at myself in the mirror. I just wish I could continue serving my country, but I can't. [♪mellow music♪] [In Their Boots] [♪♪] [In Their Boots] Welcome to In Their Boots, the show that tells the stories about the lives of military families and service members after their deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. I'm your host, Tina Malave. This season, in addition to bringing you ten new stories about the challenges our military members face after their tours of duty, we're hitting the road on a national tour. Once a month in cities across the country we'll premiere a new documentary film that will inspire us all to help our enlisted men and women, veterans and their families reintegrate into our communities. You can learn more about our tour by clicking the On the Road tab on our website at And as always, if you're a veteran, an active duty service member, or a military family who needs services, you can find a list of helpful organizations on the resources page on our website. A 2008 RAND study reported that nearly 20 percent of US service members who have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan currently have what has become the signature injury of these wars, traumatic brain injury or TBI. It's the most common trauma, yet the most complex. In today's story, we get to know four soldiers dealing with the constant physical and emotional struggle of TBI in an effort to heal their fractured minds. [Episode 2: Fractured Minds] [male speaker] A lot of people with brain injuries look like you and me, but there is an invisible wound. And it's not only a wound in the brain, it injures the whole person, and we fail to recognize that sometimes. Some people are called the walking wounded because they can walk, they can talk. You will not even know they had the brain injury. [♪♪] Over the next few years, even after the war ends, we will see a lot of people with traumatic brain injuries from this war. [female speaker] At the beginning I don't even know, to be honest, how I became pregnant. Obviously I became pregnant, but right now talking about when I became pregnant and then when I was pregnant and I delivered the baby and having the baby in my arms and everything, it's just sort of just a story for me. It's just a story. [♪♪] So that's what we do at night. We look at the pictures. When we first started looking at the album, I couldn't recognize people in the pictures. So Sandra, she points and she names people in the pictures. [Sandra] It's real cold, the water. >>Was it cold? [laughs] [Sandra] Yeah. >>Do you remember that? [Sandra] Yes. That was cold. >>It was? I don't remember how I got injured. I just have the facts. I was in a convoy, and there was a head-on collision. Not having the memory of what happened is a struggle. But what I have is records and people telling me, "You were in an accident in Iraq. You were in an accident in Iraq." So eventually, of course, when people ask me, I automatically answer, "I was in an accident in Iraq." My name is Sergeant Daniel Osborne. I'm with the Army, currently active duty, and I'm serving with the 1st Cavalry Division. Up until the end of this last deployment, I was their senior sniper. I deployed to Iraq three times, spent most of that time on all three deployments in Baghdad. Very interesting country. I have a lot of respect for the people there and their culture. The math in my line of work is one of the more crucial points because you've got to be able to calculate your distance traveled, being able to estimate the wind, being able to calculate the ballistic arc versus the difference in elevation from where you're shooting to where your target is. If one of those figures is off, it can mean the difference between hitting and missing your target altogether. My math skills aren't nearly as strong as they were. That and my eyesight isn't nearly as sharp as it used to be after the head injury. I've got double vision that's getting worse. It's pretty much self-explanatory. You don't want to be trying to decide between which of the two targets you need to hit. In most cases you only get one opportunity to make that shot, and in most cases a lot of people are counting on you to put that bullet where it's supposed to be. I'm glad I got to do it, but on the other hand I'm glad it's over. [♪♪] [male speaker] With my self-esteem being down, I was at a party one time. It was like a bar and grill type atmosphere. I was talking to a young lady at that time. We were having a great conversation and I was sweating bullets because at that time my stuttering was so bad. And then her friend comes along. I guess she was a little bit drunk. I'm never going to forget this. [chuckles] She sat down right next to her friend and she said, "Why are you talking to this guy? Why are you talking to a slow guy?" "He's kind of slow." So as soon as she said that, of course it just put everything to a halt. I got up and I just said, "It was nice meeting you." I've been in the civilian world going on about maybe almost four weeks now. To look for a job I've been searching online, calling job ads. To be honest with you, it's tough. [birds chirping] [children chattering] [male speaker] My name is Sergeant (Retired) Robert Briggs, and I served with the 220--pardon me--224th Engineers. I actually joined in '92, and I was there 16 years. My job when we found out we were getting deployed, I was an equipment operator for the Iowa Department of Transportation. I ran the maintainer a lot, blading shoulders, plowed a lot of snow, a lot of ice. Our primary mission in Iraq was to remove roadside bombs from the side of the road, as being combat engineers. It was a little bit dangerous. [birds chirping] [male speaker] There's a scale that you use, and it basically breaks down traumatic brain injury based on the severity of the injury or what we can say about the severity of the injury that the person had. And depending on how poorly they score on that, that person might be stratified as mild, moderate or severe. [Briggs] The day I was injured we were in Ramadi, Iraq. They fired three rockets in on us, and I don't remember anything after that. I lost my right eye, and I lost this whole half of my skull... and I actually left gray matter laying in the sand. Of course if you ask my wife, that's my smart half. [laughs] You looked at him when you walked in at Walter Reed and you didn't know if it was him or not. He was so blown up. I mean, his face was huge, his arms, his legs, his feet, and he was on life support. [♪♪] [birds chirping] [♪♪] [Claudia] Perla is my sister. She is the baby sister, and she has been helping for over a year. And she helps me with everything. [In Spanish] [I see myself together with Claudia and the child in 5 years.] [Unfortunately it has been more than 5 years] [since she had the accident.] [The doctors say that there should be some progress,] [and actually she is on temporary leave from the military] [and that temporary leave specifies that she be] [under medical supervision for 5 years,] [so that the military can determine if she's going to get better or not.] [So, the 5 year period is significant.] [and it has passed so...] [I see myself together with Claudia and with the child in 5 years.] [♪♪] [Claudia] I have traumatic brain injury, and that means that I have neurological problems. I have memory problems, I have understanding problems, my cognitive level is very poor and my comprehension level is poor. [Francisco] One thing you have to remember about traumatic brain injury is that this is not one condition that you can treat. It's not going to go away, even after a person has completed the years of therapy. There can be problems that persist. There can be new problems that may not even manifest until a few years after a traumatic brain injury. My brain automatically clicked in to where I got used to stuttering. Now it's just like, boom, it's like locked on there, that, "Okay, you've been stuttering, this is how you're going to be," to where I've got to retrain everything again, just how I talk. [exhales] Thank you, sir, for giving me an opportunity to come see me. I am interested in applying for this position. [exhales] [stuttering] Thank you, sir, for coming to see me. I am interested in applying for this position. I think that I would be a good candidate for your company. I am hardworking, goal-oriented and dependable. [stuttering] I would, I would... [exhales] A traumatic brain injury normally consists of really two types of injuries. And so the initial injury is often a contusion or some type of injury to the surface of the brain. So you can imagine if this were a brain inside a skull that there was an impact that came from, say, this area, that there might be an injury to this area of the brain, to in this case the right parietal area. In addition, though, a lot of times because the brain is able to move inside of the skull vault, there also might be injury to the opposite side, what's called a contrecoup injury. And so that's one type of injury that can occur in the case of a traumatic brain injury. In a lot of ways it's kind of like working with a computer that's got a virus. You want it to do what you tell it to do, and no matter how you try to get that computer to perform the task that you're asking it to do, it's just not coming together. The neurological department and the TBI group at Fort Hood selected me to go to Project Victory. I'm very lucky to be able to come down here and benefit from this treatment. [♪♪] And we'll see how much of it you remember. All right. Are you ready for this? >>Yeah. Okay. You only get one shot. Here we go. [♪♪] [Osborne] It can be really confusing, confusing with this type of injury because when you look in the mirror, it doesn't seem like anything is wrong with you. It's not like physical therapy where if you physically work harder at it you can get stronger. You don't see any muscles regrowing, you don't see bones mending. It's almost like being in your own little prison inside your head because nobody else knows what's going on. [♪♪] [Perla in Spanish] [What she tries to do at times,] [because she forgets, as time goes by she forgets...] [When we tell her and tell her about our dad] [or we tell her any story,] [what she does is build memories.] [It's not that she remembers, she builds the memories] [and according to what we tell her she remembers.] [Time passes and if we don't tell her again she'll forget.] [Then we have to tell her again and again and she builds other memories.] Not too long ago, I was relying my activities and my appointments and my notes on a notebook, on a paper agenda. I just told to my doctors that it gets to the point where I feel sick and tired of the whole situation. And I told them that I wanted to make a change in my life and see if I could handle something more convenient for me to carry around. [♪♪] [Briggs] With my short-term memory problems, if I have an appointment or something, I will actually tell my wife about it, and she will write it down. [chattering] It's on the Internet. It's a service. It's not telecom. It's... It's not... [game timer beeping] Babies say it when they're young. [laughter] Babies do it when they're young. [game timer beeping] [off screen speaker] Google! >>Yeah. [off screen speaker] Oh, crap. [laughter] I'm going to give you a time restriction. Thirty seconds to describe that one. Yeah? Are you ready? Go. Spiritual. Ghost. A ghost that would live on and on. They also call that a... [health provider] Spiritual ghost, like an angel? That would live on and on. Or people describe Dracula as what since he cannot pass away. [health provider] Eternal? >>Yes. [health provider] Ooh, very good. That's another thing too, memory loss and just remembering things because I'm normally on point of things. Nobody had to tell me anything twice. My girlfriend would say or other people would tell me, "You know what, Mark? You already told me that already." [♪♪] [Osborne] I'm having to reteach myself math right now, getting my brain to recognize the symbols and remember the rules. Right now I'm leaning towards engineering. But right now I'm going to concentrate on getting core courses done and getting into the groove of college and figuring out what techniques need to be used to work around it. [weapon fires] [♪♪] [Francisco] When someone has a traumatic brain injury, it does not only affect that person. It will also affect the family, the friends, the caregivers, the people around that person. We always say in my field that if you've had a brain injury, your entire family, your social network, your loved ones have a brain injury as well. Some of my symptoms are not physical. I actually have short-term memory loss. Not all the time, but if you ask my wife, it's a lot more than what I realize. [laughs] A lot of people think I'm mean to him, but that's what helped him get through this. He didn't want to be in a wheelchair, he didn't want to be in bed for the rest of his life, so I just keep pushing him. But I just don't even argue with my wife anymore because she knows, and that's what it takes for somebody like me who's dealing with mental problems, and she is on the outside looking in, so she knows. [speaking Spanish] [♪♪] [speaking Spanish] [Carreon to daughter] Good job. I think our relationship and the connection that we have right now has been hard work on her end and mine because Sandra definitely knows that I am her mother, and I tell her very often, "I love you, I love you, I love you," because I want her to know that once upon a time, Mommy didn't know about her. Even though she was there, Mommy didn't know about her, but I want her to know that Mommy has always been there for her and she always will be, despite the fact that I have a memory problem. I have to face it. I do. I do. My wife is getting a wealth of knowledge on what's going on with this and what could be expected down the road. So she's just not sitting on the sidelines, she's been able to be a big part of my recovery from this. To help me day to day, my wife is constantly challenging me and motivating me to continue to work harder, helping me to get my head where it needs to be to tackle the big challenge of going to college. [♪♪] Sometimes she's there to kick me in the butt when I'm feeling down about things, issues that I'm having or when the frustration builds up. It's definitely made our relationship stronger. She's been a huge help. I wouldn't have been able to do this without her. I would have gotten frustrated with everything and just given up. [Francisco] The last time you were here, you were also having trouble finding words. >>Yes. And what I notice now is that you still stumble a little bit but you eventually get the word, whereas before, you were not able to say things. I don't think you could even hardly understand me, Doctor, before. So have you talked to your family since? >>Yes. Have they said the same thing? Have they noticed your speech is different? My mom was crying when she was talking to me. I normally talk to my mom maybe five minutes. >>Right. But I talked to my mom until my cell phone died. [doctor laughs] So she's happy. That's good. I'm so glad to hear that. I'm glad that you're getting better. It's a blessing. It was just a blessing, I feel, coming to Project Victory, a blessing that you were able to see me. But give yourself credit because you worked hard. This would not have worked if you had not committed your time and your energy to getting better. >>Yes, Doctor. Do I think if I'm ever going to be cured? [chuckles] I would hope so. Head injury right now is--I guess the treatment is still fairly new. The military in general, they're actually finally looking at it like, okay, this is actually happening. [♪♪] Hopefully in the future, hopefully--I'm praying that it would get better. [♪♪] [Briggs] I'm hoping to start speaking in churches. I'll start probably in my church that I belong to in Keokuk and telling my story and just trying to inspire people. You know, if I can do it, anybody can do it. Just because you can't walk, just because you only have one arm, that's not the end of the world. There's no reason to get down about it because there's a whole lot more to life than just sitting around feeling sorry for yourself. [♪♪] [Osborne] I'm going to be getting medically separated from the Army in the next couple of months. I'm going to miss the life a lot, but I understand that it's my time to move on. [♪♪] I have a new set of goals and challenges ahead of me. [♪♪] Being in a position now where I can actually pursue a college education is pretty big for me. Doing that with the TBI, it just adds to the challenge. [♪♪] We don't look at added problems as being insurmountable. It's just better training. [♪♪] [Carreon] I think it's important for the community to realize that we should not judge people by the way they look because I even myself look at myself in the mirror and I say, "How is it possible that I can't accomplish one task in one day?" But I think we need to get educated on not only being compassionate with those that are missing a limb but also with those that look perfectly normal and we certainly have a problem. [♪♪] [whispering] I love you. God bless you. Sweet dreams. [♪♪] [light switch clicks] Welcome back to In Their Boots. Today we're joined by Army Specialist (Retired) Claudia Carreon and the director of Project Victory, Shawn Brossart. Hello, ladies. Thank you so much for joining us today. We appreciate it. Can you explain for us what TBI actually is and how that can affect a returning soldier. Of course. TBI is a traumatic brain injury. And how that occurs is usually an insult to the brain. That can happen through a gunshot wound, it can happen through stroke. What we're seeing typically with the OIF/OEF military is that it's an IED blast and they receive an insult to the brain through some blast exposure. And what we're seeing with our soldiers and how it affects them is really it affects all areas of life. It affects people physically--their balance is off, they have more difficulty doing things physically with strength and range of motion-- cognitive ability--they have more difficulty with their thinking skills such as memory or paying attention--and then of course emotionally. Often people experience depression and anxiety after an experience such as that. [Malave] Right. It seems like it's only been in the last few years that TBI has really become widely recognized. What do you think has kind of sparked this new realization? I think it's kind of sad to say because I'm sad to hear that Bob Woodruff had to go through what he had to go through, but I believe that he brought a lot to the spotlight with his injury and the show that followed subsequently. It made a big difference in the traumatic brain injury world, and it really brought things to the forefront in the American culture. [Malave] Right. Claudia, we've been watching a little bit of your story. At what point did you realize that there was something very wrong? I think I did--never far from today. Before, I didn't know. Now I know that I have TBI, but I can't tell you before because my situation happened so different. I have memory problems, and my memory problems are from the beginning. I cannot even remember what happened two days ago. So if I had a TBI back in 2003, all that I know is that I got a TBI in 2003 and then I had it in 2004, 2005, up to the present. But we've been working on it, and certainly I am better than what I was back in 2003 and years back from today. Do you remember or has your family told you, was this something that was a gradual loss for you? Or was it that you woke up from the accident and everything was different? For what I know--I have to be honest--I don't even know the story. I know that I was in this accident. I don't know what happened. They kept me on duty then. I had some problems being in the military, and I was demoted because I was disobeying orders due to my retention of information, which I didn't know I had a problem. And then I was transferred back to the States, and they treated me and then they released me and then my family saw that I really had a problem. I kept going to the VA. I was getting lost from my house to the Circle K. Then I became pregnant. I didn't know I was pregnant, so it was news every day. I gave birth and up to this point I can't remember being pregnant and giving birth. And finally, they put me into an inpatient program and that really, really helped me out because they taught me how to remember, how to realize that I was a new person, that I had a problem, that I had a daughter and that I had been in an accident that caused me some serious problems with my neurological system. I can't even imagine what this must be like for you and your family. What is the hardest part for you in all of this? Freedom. [laughs] For me it's very frustrating to wake up every day and realize that I don't have the freedom to go wherever I want to go because I will end up lost. And I don't have the freedom to be with my daughter by myself because I can jeopardize her safety and my own safety. So my mother and my sister both alternate to be with me and help me out. [Malave] Right. >>I don't want to say take care of me because I'm 35 years old. But certainly I do need their help. >>[Malave] They assist you. Ladies, we wish you both so much success. Thank you very much for being with us today. We really appreciate it. Thank you for having me. >>Thank you. The story continues on our website where you can catch more of my conversation with Claudia Carreon and Shawn Brossart. And as always, if you're a service member in need of help or if you would like to become a volunteer, just go to the resources page on our website where you can find a list of helpful organizations. I'm Tina Malave. Please join us again next time on In Their Boots. And thank you for watching. [♪♪]
Posted on BrainLine May 21, 2009.

From In Their Boots, Season 2, Episode 2, "Fractured Minds." Used with permission. All rights reserved. In Their Boots is a documentary series about the impact the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are having on people here at home.

In Their Boots is funded by a grant from the Iraq Afghanistan Deployment Impact Fund (IADIF) of the California Community Foundation and is produced by Brave New Foundation.