A Wounded Soldier’s Comeback
There were times during his rehabilitation when Jarrad Turner would reach across Tracy Roberts’ desk during one of their telephone conversations with a bureaucrat and press the “HOLD” button. “She’s really not getting this,” he would tell Tracy, a vocational rehabilitation specialist in Shepherd Center’s SHARE Military Initiative. “I wish I could climb through the phone and she could see how much pain I’m in.”
Jarrad, a former combat medic and sergeant in the U.S. Army, sustained head, shoulder and elbow injuries in a mortar attack in 2006 during his second tour of duty in Iraq. After four surgeries on his shoulder and two on his elbow, he appeared to be fine. But he stuttered, which he’d never done before, was unable to focus and kept losing his balance. Pain, anxiety, flashbacks and anger kept him awake at night, and he would get up and patrol his yard as if in a combat zone.
Yet Veterans Affairs (VA) doctors could find nothing wrong, and Jarrad’s frustration made it difficult to control his emotions while working at the VA, where he was a nursing assistant. Finally, a doctor recognized the symptoms of mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and referred Jarrad to Shepherd Center’s SHARE Military Initiative, which provides comprehensive rehabilitation for military service members injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.
PTSD is caused by psychological trauma that typically involves an extreme physical or psychological threat that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope. Mild traumatic brain injury is a disabling condition that causes a change in the brain’s cellular matter.
“The worst thing with TBI and PTSD,” Jarrad says, “is that adrenaline becomes the enemy. When it’s quiet, you expect things to happen, so your body’s never in a resting state. And being a medic… I’d seen things that the average person would never see.”
Further complicating the issue is that typically there are no visible signs that a person has mTBI or PTSD.
“Our society is more likely to accommodate people with visible disabilities, like those with a cane or a prosthetic,” Tracy says. “But TBI and PTSD are ‘unseen’ diagnoses, and patients must not only manage these chronic conditions the rest of their lives, but also do so with little or no support from those who are unaware of their existence.”
Adding yet another degree of complexity is that very few in the military are willing to talk about the problems they’re having for fear of reprisal.
“If you want to get promoted, you don’t talk about mental health issues,” Jarrad says. “It was nothing to be unable to sleep until 2 a.m. and then have to get up at 5, and other guys were experiencing the same thing. But you don’t know how to open up or if you can open up to somebody.”
Before entering SHARE, the only thing Jarrad could do was go to the gym and, as he puts it, “kill the weights – anything to get the adrenaline up. That was how I knew to respond to things.”
But once he learned that adrenaline was harmful, he had to find other ways to burn his energy.
“It was very frustrating for him,” says Irene Pennington, his SHARE case manager. “He needed that outlet, but a lot of things aggravated his injuries and gave him severe headaches. He was continually exploring new physical outlets that wouldn’t get him too amped up or trigger the PTSD or further injure his shoulder and arm.”
Eventually he found lacrosse, kayaking and cycling. And, Irene says, “He’s learning to pace himself.”
He also discovered he was no longer suited to be a medic or first responder because it, too, triggered adrenaline, and yet his attempts to find other work were disregarded. “It’s not that the VA system is bad,” Jarrad says. “It’s overwhelmed. It was never created to handle so many service members coming home.”
But SHARE therapists and counselors took the time to understand him, and Jarrad was encouraged to see that they were empowered to make decisions and act quickly.
“He tried to advocate for himself and requested reasonable accommodations, but he got no response,” Tracy says. “It wasn’t easy. It triggered a lot of anger and frustration. But we tried to look at it with a sense of humor. We’d say: ‘That’s them. We’ll persevere and get what we want.’ He was willing to embrace and experience the process and move on, and he continues to use the techniques he learned to manage his pain and frustration, and to maintain his overall functioning. And his perseverance paid off when he transferred to a different job at the VA and then took a new job.”
Jarrad began training this past spring to become a national service officer for Disabled American Veterans. He will help veterans navigate the oftenbewildering government bureaucracy and claim benefits that are rightfully theirs.
“I want to make sure that no one else has to go through what I went through,” Jarrad says. “A lot of guys are ashamed they have PTSD or TBI, but there’s nothing to be ashamed of. You raised your hand and did what had to be done. Part of the Army creed is, ‘I will never leave a fallen comrade,’ and I know too many guys who have paid the price.”
In the two years since his discharge from SHARE, Jarrad has volunteered at fundraisers for the program and promotes SHARE to other military service members. “Shepherd is a life-saving facility,” he says. “They wouldn’t give up on me and provided so much. I can’t thank them enough.”
Shortly after Jarrad entered SHARE, he met Atlanta philanthropist Bernie Marcus, one of the program’s primary benefactors. Having lost the feeling in his right hand due to his injuries, Jarrad almost crushed Bernie’s hand when they shook hands.
“Oh, my God,” Bernie joked, “I’ll never shake your hand again!”
During a visit after his discharge from SHARE, Jarrad saw Bernie again.
“I didn’t know who you were at first,” Bernie told him. “You’re smiling. When I first met you, you couldn’t smile. Now you’re grinning from ear to ear.”
“Oh, yeah,” Jarrad replied, “now I feel like a human being.”
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 900 inpatients, 575 day program patients and more than 7,100 outpatients each year.