A Mesa Army veteran’s brain injury went undiagnosed for years

By David Ryan

After more than a decade of crippling headaches, alcohol and drug abuse, a psychiatric appointment unlocked a decade of mystery for Army veteran Kenny Baca.

Baca, 45, had lived for 15 years with an undiagnosed traumatic brain injury inflicted in a tractor trailer accident when he served in the U.S. Army Reserve in Arizona.

In the years after the accident in 1991, Baca spent months in jail for multiple DUIs. He couldn’t keep a job framing and painting houses because the more he worked, the worse his headaches became. He was aggressive and at times, would call his mother – lost – unable to figure out where he was.

While traumatic brain injuries primarily have been associated over the last decade as a signature wound of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, every year more than 1.7 million Americans suffer a TBI, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

“The TBI is such a hard thing to diagnose, it’s not something physical. It’s not like a limp, it’s an invisible injury,” said Baca, who now lives in Mesa, Ariz. “I’m sure if I was walking around for 15 years not knowing, then there are plenty of people out there undiagnosed.”

In 2006, a Department of Veterans Affairs psychiatrist agreed to review the original medical records from Baca’s accident. She found a note about significant head trauma that never was diagnosed or treated as TBI by military or VA doctors. A VA neurologist later confirmed Baca suffered from TBI.

“Knowing that something is wrong, but nobody can tell you what … it finally brought some hope into my life,” he said. “That was the beginning of a lot of changes for the better.”

Baca’s accident happened on a two-week mission in Pomona, Calif. Baca was driving a soft-top tractor trailer carrying construction equipment on a freeway during rush hour when a driver cut him off. The tractor trailer slammed into stopped traffic.

Baca remembers the sound of metal hubcaps scraping against pavement and the smell of rubber burning before the trailer rolled and grated to a rest on the pavement with the passenger’s side facing the sky.

“I wasn’t in a seatbelt, and that’s probably what saved my life,” Baca said. “I probably would have gotten decapitated.”

Baca found himself partially ejected from the truck, pinned between the truck body and burning canvas top. His passenger was in a seatbelt and called Baca’s name.

“My name was the last thing that he said,” Baca said. “I was pinned under the truck and couldn’t help him, I couldn’t respond.”

Baca was pinned for 27 minutes.  He suffered a broken left femur, broken ribs and deep gashes to his face.

He spent six weeks recuperating. The damage to nerves in his legs was extensive. Doctors told Baca to get used to a wheelchair.

But with the help of a physical therapist, Baca began his recovery. It was two years before Baca took his first step, and three before he walked for the first time.

One day during a family gathering, his mother and sister looked up from the couch to see him standing. He walked from the family room, out the sliding door and jumped in the pool.

“I don’t know if he practiced at physical therapy,” said his mother Linda Madrid. “But it was just amazing to see.”

At 26, Baca moved out on his own and was working construction. But some days, he wouldn’t show up to a job and was fired.

Over the next 12 years, he said he was drinking multiple six-packs a day, and at times mixing alcohol with marijuana, cocaine or meth.

“I was self-medicating, trying to fit in, trying to work… trying to be a working person, somebody that contributes,” Baca said. “Self-medicating is a scary place to be. If you’re drinking, you have chronic pain, you can’t see things any other way. It’s hard to imagine not coming home and drinking beer.”

Eventually he mixed beer with hydrocodone, an opiate painkiller he was prescribed for chronic pain.

“I was really tired of my life,” Baca said. “I think I got really tired of it when I got my last DUI and went to jail. I wanted to change. I didn’t know how, and decided to get counseling.”

Baca’s new doctors worked out a treatment plan, but warned him if he continued to drink and use drugs, he was a prime candidate for Alzheimer’s at an early age. Baca hasn’t had a drink since.

He moved closer to his family and got married.

“If I didn’t get diagnosed with the TBI, who knows if I’d be here today?” Baca said. “Sometimes I wonder that.”

Therapy dog aids veterans with PTSD

By Bonnie Campo, News21

She rarely barks, but she always wags her tail as she enters some of the most difficult and darkened doorways of the Veterans Affairs Eastern Colorado Health Care System.

Elizabeth Holman demonstrates Waffle's ability to lean against patients on command, which Holman says brings comfort to PTSD patients at Denver's VA Medical Center. (Photo by Jake Stein, News21)

Elizabeth Holman demonstrates Waffle’s ability to lean against patients on command, which Holman says brings comfort to PTSD patients at Denver’s VA Medical Center. (Photo by Jake Stein, News21)

Waffle comes from a high pedigree of Labrador retrievers, but more importantly, she is the secondary caretaker for terminally ill veterans who are fighting their last battles. The 2-year-old pup also assists veterans who are newly returned home, those who have conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, and some who are just seeking a smile.

Waffle’s skill set includes responses to approximately 50 commands that range from her giving high-fives to opening doors for the disabled. Her handler, Elizabeth Holman, has worked four years for the Denver VA. Holman, a clinical psychologist, delivers palliative care, which focuses mainly on pain and stress.

Waffle offers an avenue for others to speak about their ailments, Holman said. She “can’t even imagine” what her practice would be like without Waffle, Holman said.

Dogs provide comfort, but they are no substitute for established PTSD treatment, according to the National Center of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a division of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Waffle quietly rests beside Elizabeth Holman in front of Denver's VA Medical Center. (Photo by Jake Stein, News21)

Waffle quietly rests beside Elizabeth Holman in front of Denver’s VA Medical Center. (Photo by Jake Stein, News21)

“Although people with PTSD who have a service dog or emotional support dog may feel comforted by the animal, there is some chance he or she may continue to believe that they cannot do certain things on their own,” according to the VA Center website. “Depending on a dog can get in the way of the recovery process for PTSD.”

Even though most veterans are on medications, this treatment is an alternative that Holman said seems to be working, especially for those who are seeking some immediate relief.

Holman cited studies that report simply petting an animal lowers patients’ blood pressure and stress.

“This is her mission,” Holman said.

Holman thinks that some wounded veterans cannot speak comfortably to doctors — who must continuously jot notes and make personal assessments — as they might interact with an animal, she said.

Waffle came from the Canine Companions program and has provided therapy since February. She already is greeted like a celebrity in about every room she enters.

“We didn’t name her, but someone said that it fits her because she melts the veterans heart like butter,” Holman said.

It is too soon to have a clear evidence base to prove whether therapy dogs are an effective treatment, according to the national PTSD Center website, but Holman said she can see the difference in her patients.

For now Waffle’s four paws will continue to march hallways in the hospital, dispensing happiness to new and old faces.

Army Sergeant uses music to combat PTSD

By Bonnie Campo, News21

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/100358285″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

The Warrior Resilience Center at Fort Bliss, Texas, continues to explore multiple treatment options for post-traumatic stress disorder, while official and traditional treatment offer two options.

Doctors and clinicians at Fort Bliss treat active duty troops who primarily served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Treatment at the center is offered from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. in a program that lasts four weeks. Each day is tailored to the patient’s needs, said Vicki Thomas, who is chief of the Warrior Resilience Center.

Sgt. John Welsh finished the program June 21 and said that every day spent at the clinic encouraged him.

“I am about 65 percent recovered,” Welsh said. “But I have more hope now than I did when I began the program.”

Welsh benefited from his treatment, but because of his mental trauma will remain at Fort Bliss. Asked if he would be deployed, he said, “That’s not an option right now. I’m unfit for duty.”

That doesn’t mean Welsh will stop trying. He believes in the progress he has made, but he also advocates helping those who struggle with the same horrors and memories of war.

“A lot of soldiers ignore their problems until it becomes to much to bear; I was one of them,” Welsh said. “I am willing to do anything to help combat related trauma.”

And he has. Welsh produced a song for a friend in 2011, just two weeks before Welsh left for Iraq. That friend was Sgt. Brett Cornelius, who sustained a traumatic brain injury. One of the only things Cornelius can remember is his wife, so Welsh  took a poem Cornelius wrote for her and put it to music.

Welsh returned from Iraq nine months later with PTSD. Cornelius’s memory is approximately 15 minuets because of his TBI. But when they hear the song, Welsh said, they get to remember life before war, before the explosions, and before they were no longer fit to serve.

Through this act of kindness they both are heading toward success, just like the name of the song “On My Way.”

The song can be purchased on iTunes and proceeds from the song go directly to Sgt. Brett Cornelius and his family, minus legal and copyright expenses.

Camp helps veterans cope with PTSD

By Chase Cook, News21

Matthew XXXXX smokes cigarettes with Jaydee Faulkner at their interim house on June 25th, which is part of the PTSD Foundation of America's Camp Hope in Houston, Texas. The camp offers housing for struggling veterans, like Faulkner who suffers from post-traumatic stress brought on by his service in the Army. (Photo by Chase Cook, News21)

Matthew Marshall smokes cigarettes with Jaydee Faulkner at their interim house on June 25th, which is part of the PTSD Foundation of America’s Camp Hope in Houston, Texas. The camp offers housing for struggling veterans, like Faulkner who suffers from post-traumatic stress brought on by his service in the Army. (Photo by Chase Cook, News21)

If it weren’t for Camp Hope, Jaydee Faulkner would be dead.

“I would have killed myself,” the Army veteran said.

After Faulkner came home from duty in Iraq, he battled with post-traumatic stress disorder. The only emotions he could feel were anger and depression, Faulkner said, and he knew that needed help after he lashed out and struck his wife.

He discovered the PTSD Foundation of America Camp Hope in Houston, Texas. The organization places struggling veterans in transitional housing so they can focus on recovery. Transition can last up to six months, depending on veterans’ needs. The PTSD Foundation also places veterans in support groups and offers faith-based services.

Faulkner has been at Camp Hope for six weeks and said he is improving. His wife and daughter joined him two weeks ago.

Faulkner’s progress and successes by others have motivated Camp Hope officials to double the number of veterans they can house, increasing to 16 by fall 2013. Two more homes are being built to support four people or a family, Retired Lt. Col. Ann Marie LaRoque said.

One of the homes will be available for female veterans as the need arises, LaRoque said.

Each veteran in an interim home gets a single room and shares a living room and kitchen with other residents. They may personalize their space, and some do, with drawings done by their children, for example.

Housing is granted according to when a veteran arrives and the level of need evident.

“There are people we turn away right now because there aren’t enough beds,” LaRoque said. “We can get people into the support groups, but with the current infrastructure we can’t house anyone else.”

Having veterans live at Camp Hope, where they have access to other veteran workers or residents is paramount to their recovery, Executive Director David Maulsby said.

“Civilians have no idea what they have gone through,” he said.

After the two new homes are built in the fall, LaRoque said, attention will shift to construction plans next year for a building that would house 23 veterans, expanding the potential number of residents to 39.

Navy veteran confronts trauma with exposure therapy

By Riley Johnson, News21

Jason Patterson, seen here in Saddam Hussein's office in the Baghdad Presidential Palace in 2004, served in the unit that governed Iraq after the invasion.  (Photo submitted by Patterson)

Jason Patterson, seen here in Saddam Hussein’s office in the Baghdad Presidential Palace in 2004, served in the unit that governed Iraq after the invasion. (Photo submitted by Patterson)

Jason Patterson’s traumatic experiences in Baghdad’s Green Zone no longer trigger anxiety in parking lots.

The 45-year-old Navy veteran saw a parking lot as a “death trap” with the openness creating easy targets for car bombs. Patterson’s daily stress over six months as a communications support officer in 2004 Baghdad seemed “like six years,” he said.

Patterson retired from the Navy in 2009, but his Iraq experiences crept up on him in ways he didn’t readily notice. On grocery trips in his La Vista, Neb., hometown, he’d park at the far end of the lot, fearing bombs, he said.

In March 2012, Patterson sought therapy for his post-traumatic stress through the Veterans Affairs hospital in Omaha. The program – prolonged exposure therapy –is one of an array of PTSD treatments allowed by the VA. A therapist would ask Patterson to talk about his trauma, and on his own, confront the situations that triggered it.

Terry North, director of the PTSD program for the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System, said that prolonged exposure therapy is designed to help veterans “develop a more balanced view of the world. With trauma, their world turns into ‘The world is a dangerous place.’ ”

In his sessions, Patterson would close his eyes and recall his traumas.

“That’s how you open the gate,” he said.

Parked alone in his silver Honda Civic, Patterson confronted his anxiety. The first few times he’d abandon his one-hour goal and leave after 10 or 15 minutes. But over 12 weeks he began to feel more comfortable. He learned to close his eyes, and think of fishing.

Patterson doesn’t fish more than once or twice every few months in the summer, but fishing helps him cope, he said.

“It brings joy, excitement and a sense of peace,” he said. “As long as I’m fishing, I don’t care.”

What We’re Reading: Week 4

By Chad Garland, News21

War is complicated. Despite its gruesome horror though, war also can be a catalyst for good. Whether that good takes the form of, well, let’s call it spiritual growth, scientific research or educational opportunity for veterans and their families, more than a decade of military conflict has reshaped American culture and our understanding of ourselves.

What We’re Reading:

War Junkie (David Axe, 6/5, Medium) From the archive of war correspondent David Axe’s blog: a tale of war and its psychological, perhaps spiritual effects. Axe offers a moving account of his 2005 trip to Baqubah, Iraq. It’s where he covered the South Carolina National Guard and the country’s first democratic elections since 1958, and where he became acquainted with war.

Looking past monuments, parades for vets’ next steps (Leo Shane III, 6/12, Stars and Stripes) Groups such as Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America have called for parades to welcome home war veterans. Other nonprofits have pursued the mission of putting veterans to work, volunteering or staying physically fit as a way to reintegrate and find a second calling in civilian life.

New Bill Would Give GI Bill to Surviving Spouses (Terry Howell, 5/23, Military.com) The Spouses of Heroes Education Act would give spouses of fallen service members the same full undergraduate education benefits their children receive through the Marine Gunnery Sergeant John David Fry Scholarship. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the bill could cost $200 million over the next decade.

PTSD may be prevented, researchers find (Alan Zarembo, 6/5, Los Angeles Times) Scientists have linked a particular, “relatively common,” variation of a gene to activation of a receptor in the brain that might make some more susceptible to suffering PTSD. This could provide new methods of preventing the disorder, some researchers say.

American Psychiatric Association rejects PTSD name change

By Trahern Jones, News21

The American Psychiatric Association will not change the name of post-traumatic stress disorder in the latest edition of the physicians’ desk reference on mental disorders.

The organization explained its reasoning in a fact sheet released along with the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) in May.

“Certain military leaders, both active and retired, believe the word ‘disorder’ makes many soldiers who are experiencing PTSD symptoms reluctant to ask for help,” according to the fact sheet. “They have urged a change to rename the disorder post-traumatic stress injury, a description that they say is more in line with the language of troops and would reduce stigma.”

An APA task force ultimately ruled against such a change saying that “injury” is too vague for a medical diagnosis.

Moreover, the APA believes that the stigma surrounding PTSD may have little to do with naming conventions.

“Others believe it is the military environment that needs to change, not the name of the disorder, so that mental health care is more accessible and soldiers are encouraged to seek it in a timely fashion,” according to the fact sheet.

The new edition of the DSM also will rearrange the symptoms individuals must experience to be diagnosed as having the disorder. The previous DSM only required three symptom clusters to be identified. The latest edition requires four.

APA removed wording regarding the individual’s experience of “intense fear, helplessness or horror,” because it did not have “utility in predicting the onset of PTSD.”

The condition was moved from “anxiety disorders” to a new chapter on “Trauma- and Stress-or-Related Disorders,” according to the fact sheet.

PTSD continues to be defined by an individual’s exposure to trauma, such as by experiencing a traumatic event, witnessing it, or learning that it has occurred to a close family member or friend.

Families of post-9/11 vets pay tribute on Memorial Day

By Colton Totland, News21

Memorial Day visitors at the National Cemetery of Arizona were treated to a flyover Monday morning by pilots in World War Two-era planes. (Photo by Colton Totland, News21)

Memorial Day visitors at the National Cemetery of Arizona were treated to a flyover Monday morning by pilots in World War Two-era training planes. (Photo by Colton Totland, News21)

In T-shirts that depict John Larson as a smiling Army recruit, his family each year follows the row of headstones that lead to his grave.

Unlike many of those buried around him, Larson’s death came not from combat, but in a room at Fort Hood, Texas. Haunted by war and burdens at home, he committed suicide, his brother said.

Larson’s death is an extreme circumstance among post-9/11 veterans returning every month to another battle: transition to civilian life. Memorial Day belongs to these veterans as well, something that was clear Monday at the National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona, where the Larsons paid their respects.

“All families have a story,” Phil Larson said, pausing to glance at visitors across the cemetery of more than 43,000. “These families are visiting loved ones who passed away, whether they were shot in combat, or dealing with the strains of combat afterward.”

Hundreds of visitors gathered for an early morning ceremony — complete with music and a vintage biplane flyover.

James Ewald was one of two tuba players in the 108th Army band. Reservist Ewald said he only recently found work after returning from deployment more than a year ago.

“I just returned to a bad market,” Ewald said. The wire manufacturing company where he worked went out of business while he was on active duty. “I tried everything — even as a truck driver, nothing; pizza delivery, nothing.

“I hear it all the time from other veterans, and it’s a real problem,” he added.

Post-9/11 veteran unemployment still hovers around 2 percentage points higher than non-veterans, despite dozens of such efforts since 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Finding adequate support for PTSD or other combat-related injuries seems even harder, with the average VA wait-time for compensation lasting upward of 315 days, according to the Berkeley, Calif.-based Center for Investigative Reporting.

PTSD battle persists for Iraq War veteran

Originally posted on NewsNetNebraska

By Riley Johnson, News21 

Photo by Riley Johnson // Dominic Biondo, 35, experienced post-traumatic stress upon returning to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln from Iraq and his work with a defense contractor.

Dominic Biondo, 35, experienced post-traumatic stress upon returning to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln from Iraq and his work with a defense contractor. (Photo by Riley Johnson, News21)

Dominic Biondo can feel it coming back on.

He’s tossing and turning at night, exhausted during the day. He has started finding time to nap, and scotch and vodka have found their way back into his evening routine. The 35-year-old Air Force veteran hasn’t returned to splashing Baileys Irish Cream into his coffee, but he bought a bottle at the store recently.

And the anger that once clouded his days as an undergraduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has crept back into his life.

“How do I not hate everything?” Biondo said of his continued fight with the post-traumatic stress brought on by his time in the interrogation rooms at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and at a defense contractor several years ago.

Dominic Biondo is one of many post-9/11 veterans who have battled post traumatic stress upon returning from their battles in Iraq and Afghanistan. The number of annual cases of post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, has risen substantially since the early 2000s for soldiers serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation New Dawn.

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