Loss and recovery are common themes for individuals with traumatic brain injury (TBI). In my interview with Army Sgt. Mike Ortiz, he revealed his loss and his hope. This is his story.
It’ll be two years this June since I sustained a mild traumatic brain injury while serving in Iraq. Since I worked as an Army mechanic. Since I felt wholly myself—funny, athletic, outgoing and caring. Since my wife said goodbye.
I’m stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas, but hope to find a job as a mechanic closer to where my two-year-old son lives. The Army says I’m fit for duty now (some days I’m still not sure) except for the weight gain from my long rehab. I’ll fix that, but I don’t see my wife and me fixing things. My behavior after the injury was just too hard on her.
But I want to be there for my son.
During my two tours in Iraq, I drove a wrecker, recovering blown-up vehicles and parts. One day, I was in a convoy on unfamiliar roads. In a convoy, you have to keep certain intervals for safety and we kept falling behind, so we punched it.
What we didn’t see ahead was a hole in the road made by an improvised explosive device three feet deep and four feet wide—we hit it at 65mph.
I tried to bounce with the seat, but there was so much force my head hit the roof like a projectile. When they asked me if I was ok, I said yes. Truth was my back was killing me—I didn’t even think about my head.
My back hurts … why are you talking about my head?
When I returned to the states, I saw a doctor for my back and related the story. He asked me a bunch of questions: did you develop a stutter? (I had); how many times did you hit your head? (twice); did you have anger issues that weren’t there before? (yes). I was getting frustrated because I didn’t know why he was asking those questions. I was there for my back, not my head.
When the doctor said I probably had a brain injury, I denied it. I later learned that denial and short-term memory loss are symptoms of TBI. I checked into the Jump Start program at William Beaumont Army Medical Center, Texas, which offers speech, physical and occupational therapy to service members with traumatic brain injuries and posttraumatic stress disorder. I did well.
Then my wife left.
I didn’t want to tell my son: ‘Daddy got kicked out of the Army’
After that, I was constantly late for work, got into trouble, didn’t shave and didn’t care. Nearly seven years in the Army and I never got in trouble once. Now, I was in danger of being kicked out—what would I tell my son?
With encouragement from Army Staff Sgt. Victor Medina, I entered Mentis Neuro Rehabilitation and spent six months in cognitive and behavioral therapy. That was my turning point. The therapists helped me to understand that I had to take care of myself before I could take care of others.
I don’t blame her for leaving
Depression, anger, denial, problems sleeping, concentrating, memory loss — my wife dealt with all of this without the benefit of understanding traumatic brain injuries. She thought I was lazy, uncaring and belligerent when I didn’t bring things she asked for from the store or brought the wrong item home. I felt dumb because I couldn’t remember simple things.
Little stuff, but it piled up.
I believe the real mistake was not involving her in my therapy from the beginning. If my story could serve a purpose, it would be to raise awareness of the impact a traumatic brain injury can have on partners and families; how incorporating them into the healing process from the beginning can help everyone understand and cope with the symptoms. Doing so just might save a marriage…and keep a family intact.
Support for families can be found with these resources:
- DCoE Outreach Center (866-966-1020)
- Veterans Affairs Caregiver Support (855-260-3274)
- Family TBI Resources
Original content posted by Jayne Davis, DCoE Strategic Communications
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