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The Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins With a Single Step

By Liz Brown

Rob finally has an appointment at the VA to be evaluated for Traumatic Brain Injury. I'm nervous. Mostly because we're not sure what to expect.

Most people know Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) as a concussion. It occurs when a person experiences trauma that damages the brain. For my husband, that indicts the countless explosions he triggered/witnessed/couldn't avoid as a Navy SEAL. That, and crashes during tactical driving, training falls, and the monotonous violence of skiffs and RHIBs. The range of TBI effects is wide, from mood swings to seizures.

You just don't know until you know.

It took us eight months to make the appointment. And that's not on the VA; Rob has a great case worker who's called doggedly, and even sent letters to the house, trying to get him in to see a specialist. We're the ones who let it slip.

As I sit here, I am trying to think of a good reason why. Maybe it didn't seem urgent. Brain trauma is an invisible injury; there are no casts, sutures, or band aids that can be applied. And the symptoms? Easily shrugged off as common hurts.

Headache: He has them all the time, but so do I.

Fatigue: Show me a 30-something who isn't tired.

Difficulty sleeping: What former or current operator doesn't sleep like crap?

Ringing in the ears: Well yeah, but that's just Team Guy Tinnitus.

Memory or concentration problems: I have to remind him of everything. Everything.

Feeling depressed or anxious: He has very dark days, yes. I suffer from clinical depression, though, and I've never had TBI.

At the end of reviewing that litany, Rob tells me he's not worried. He doesn't feel messed up. Not today, anyway.

In my former life as a journalist, I once did a report on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. One of the things I learned in doing research is that TBI can increase the risk of degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and Dementia. For all the articles I read about brain trauma, and all the pros I spoke with, there's no way to know what comes next. And this is not 'Subject A' we're talking about, it's my husband. I need him and I need him to be OK.

Trying to open Rob's mind about evaluation, I asked him how he would have responded if one of his guys had said, Chief, should I get looked at or not? My husband didn't hesitate before answering.

"I'd tell him his career is going to end at some point, but he's got to live with his body and brain forever."

So we made the call.

The first step is meeting with a doctor. I've already learned from the VA that the majority of people who suffer mild TBI will completely recover, and those who are regularly plagued by symptoms can get into comprehensive rehabilitation programs. We just need to get a firm grasp on what Rob needs. And we will.

There's some measure of comfort in moving forward, even if it's toward the unknown. I urge all service members to do so. Though there may be no harm in being evaluated, there can be a world in hurt in not doing so.