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Soldier Celebrates His Own Independence Along with the Nation's on July 4th

Shepherd Center's SHARE Military Initiative gives hope and strength to soldier with traumatic brain injuries sustained on the battlefield.

By Matt Burgess
Former Client, SHARE Military Initiative

On July 4, our country sets aside a day to celebrate the Declaration of Independence from an oppressive and tyrannical government.  Many will focus on the meaning of the freedom, which we obtained by severing ties with an external source.

During eight years of military service, I experienced four blast explosions resulting in numerous traumatic brain injuries (TBI), was diagnosed with 18 medical conditions as a result of an Anthrax vaccination and was sexually assaulted at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. While in my senior year at the University of Georgia in 2013, I began to have increasing problems with my studies because of the TBIs, and this prompted me to seek help from Shepherd Center’s SHARE Military Initiative, a comprehensive rehabilitation program for military service members who have sustained TBIs and/or PTSD during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I entered the program with the hope and expectation that the SHARE staff would help free me from the TBI, which I viewed as the problem and the oppressor keeping me from the freedom I desperately wanted.

The incredibly knowledgeable, skillful, thorough, creative and compassionate SHARE staff helped turn my hopelessness into hope, disabilities into abilities, confusion into clarity, disorganization into organization and weakness into strength. They gave me powerful and effective tools and strategies that enabled me to continue to achieve not just my daily goals, but also to reach for my dreams. The staff helped me overcome and tear down seemingly insurmountable walls. They collaborated with me to make my mind and body stronger, which dramatically increased my overall well-being.

Most importantly, they showed me that the TBI, my other medical conditions and any external events that had happened in my life were not the tyrants keeping me oppressed and restraining me from the freedom I desperately wanted. The SHARE staff empowered me to believe that the past shows us where we have been, but it does not have to dictate where we are going. They empowered me to be firmly convinced that my disabilities might refine me, but they would no longer define me. Events and the resulting disabilities were not my true nature. The oppressive life I was living did not stem from an external source, but from my own internal, self-imposed beliefs and labels I had accepted. The independence I experienced and declared when I graduated from SHARE was not just a one-day event. It has been an ongoing celebration of freedom from the shackled life I previously lived.

Today, I run a non-profit organization that provides service dogs for individuals with disabilities. Despite the demands this non-profit requires, I am confident I can achieve my goals and dreams as I incorporate the strategies, tools, resources and new mindsets I learned from the SHARE staff.

When our founding fathers obtained their freedom, they did not feel this was enough. Consequently, they determined to declare that independence in what we now know as the Declaration of Independence, which we celebrate on July 4th. Every day, I have the tremendously fulfilling privilege to collaborate with individuals who have suffered tremendous adversity in their life, yet with resiliency and determination they not only obtain their freedom, but also declare it through words and actions.

On July 4th, like so many others, I will stop and reflect on what this day means to me. I know I will determine that it means the ability to pursue life, liberty and happiness. I have every confidence I will celebrate not only my own freedom from oppression – whether that be from internal or external sources – but also find great meaning in empowering others to join me in enjoying a self-actualized life. I will feel the same amount of indebtedness and gratefulness to the SHARE staff as I feel for our founding fathers.


MATT BURGESS was born in Concord, N.H. After he graduated from high school, he spent eight years in the U.S. Army before he was medically retired due to four blast explosions and 18 diagnosed medical conditions, which stemmed from an Anthrax vaccination. In 2010, Matt received an associate’s degree from Gainesville State University before transferring to the University of Georgia. Upon graduation of from the SHARE Military Initiative at Shepherd Center in September 2013, Matt moved to Myrtle Beach, S.C. He is the founder of Freedom Fidos, a nonprofit organization that provides service dogs for any individual with a disability. He receives a great deal of fulfillment from this, he says.

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.