As many as one in four soldiers coming home to Joint Base Lewis-McChord from combat deployments report being exposed to explosions that trigger mild traumatic brain injuries. Often overlooked, these injuries - known by the shorthand TBI - can lead to depression, short-term memory problems and sleep loss.
Lewis-McChord is stepping up its screening efforts to steer soldiers to treatment. On Thursday it hosted a summit to spread information to military families.
A personal story was shared by Sgt. Shane Van Fossen, injured two years ago when a roadside bomb exploded under his Humvee in Iraq. He was deployed with the 3rd Infantry Division out of Fort Benning, Ga.
His wife, Spc. Justine Van Fossen, was deployed to the same base east of Baghdad. They coped with his injuries until he found a routine that helped him recover at Madigan Army Medical Center’s Traumatic Brain Injury Program.
The Van Fossens spoke with The News Tribune on Thursday about his struggle to heal.
Question: What happened after the bomb exploded?
Shane: I blacked out twice. They wanted to call a medevac. I said no, I wanted to stay with my guys. We continued with the mission and I just noticed from time to time I was having trouble with things. It was getting hard to remember things.
It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but for me, I’m a pay-attention-to-detail guy. I had trouble sleeping. It was all the classic symptoms and I didn’t know it. I had never been hurt like that before. I thought I was just being a jerk.
What happened when you came home to Georgia?
Shane: It was all new. New roads. New apartment. I had trouble even remembering where our house was.
I went to a TBI clinic and they weren’t treating me to get better. They were treating me to cope with it, like it was something I just had to live with.
Justine, could you see a change?
Justine: I could tell a difference. This was his sixth deployment. Before he was calm, cool and collected. Now he was anxious and forgetting things.
How did you wind up getting help at Madigan?
Shane: I started an assignment at the Seattle recruiting center in February ’09. My first year was really rough. There were just a lot of things you have to do to make sure a recruit is qualified to be in the military. It’s all lists and checks, and it was hard for me.
It really started depressing me. I was irritable. I was picking fights with my wife. Finally, I said ‘Honey, I’m doing bad. I want some help because I think I have post traumatic stress.’
What happened at the TBI clinic here?
Shane: I just was not looking forward to it. I was bombing the tests. The doctor pulled me in his office and he said, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ He said, ‘You don’t want to be here.’
I told him, ‘No I don’t want to be here. I’ve already been told I can’t be fixed.’
He said, ‘I don’t know who told you that. You’re fixable.’
I embraced it immediately. I wanted to be fixed.
What did you do to heal?
Shane: It was a lot of memory tests. Reading, not just reading but reading to retain. Playing on the Wii to work on hand-eye coordination. Your brain’s like any other muscle and you have to exercise it.
Justine, how were you involved in his recovery?
Shane: I didn’t involve her. She took charge of me.
Justine: I would test him. I pushed him. We’d talk and I’d quiz him about things we talked about 30 minutes earlier.
Shane: She challenged me all the time; she never got angry with me.
You’re here today to talk with 400 of your peers. What do you want them to know about TBI?
Shane: You can heal. You can get better. Not every single story of a soldier being deployed and coming home is a disaster story. You’ve got to take advantage of the tools that are available to you. You just have to have the courage to ask.
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/military