Atlanta, GA,
09:30 AM

Veteran Gets His Smile Back with Help of SHARE Military Initiative

Program offers brain injury and PTSD rehabilitation for service men and women.

When Dustin Ellison, of Pisgah Forest, N.C., got out of the U.S. Marine Corps in 2013 after serving for 12 years as a bulk fuel specialist, he seemed fine. He enrolled in school to pursue a degree in exercise science, and he tried to get on with a normal life.

Then, things started to change. He couldn’t sleep. He had trouble reading and comprehending his schoolwork. He forgot appointments and assignments. He lost his appetite and stopped eating. Eventually, he isolated himself and rarely left the house.

Dustin, who had five combat deployments in Iraq and had been injured in 2006 when a mortar detonated close by, had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Although he sought treatment, nothing seemed to alleviate his symptoms.

“He was scared and miserable,” says his sister, Heather Boyd. “He lost so much weight that he was a shell of himself.”

Even Dustin admits that he was withering away – both physically and mentally.

Heather was desperate to help her brother and was pursuing every avenue she could. Finally, one of her military contacts told her about Shepherd Center’s SHARE Military Initiative (which stands for Shaping Hope and Recovering Excellence). She sent a letter to Shepherd Center asking them to please “save my brother.”

Once he was accepted, Heather prepared a script and was ready with any arguments or obstacles Dustin might throw her way when she suggested he enroll in the program. But he didn’t argue.

“He just said, ‘OK,’” Heather says. “I was shocked.”

“I wasn’t sure what to expect,” Dustin recalls, “but I was willing to give it a try.”

Shepherd’s SHARE Military Initiative is a comprehensive rehabilitation program that focuses on assessment and treatment for service men and women who have sustained a mild to moderate traumatic brain injury and PTSD from combat in post-9/11 conflicts. The program is largely donor funded.

A month into the program, Heather came to Atlanta to visit her brother. The difference she saw in him was amazing.

“As soon as I arrived, I noticed Dustin laughing and joking with everyone,” Heather recalls. “He had gained weight and was looking healthier. He had life in his face. It gave me hope for the possibility of a recovery.”

Dustin was at Shepherd Center from Sept. 7, 2015 until Jan. 6, 2016. Through a customized therapy program, he worked on his balance, speech and hearing, as well as learned strategies to help his memory and reading comprehension. He also attended counseling to help heal his emotional scars.

Now back home in North Carolina, Dustin focuses on continuing to get better; he wants to go back to school at some point. He still returns to Shepherd Center to see his friends graduate from the SHARE program.

“I care now about myself and others,” Dustin says. “That’s a huge shift for me. It’s the best thing I’ve done to help myself. I’m in a better place now.”

For that, his sister is grateful. “Our service members so deserve a second shot at life, and that’s what the SHARE program does,” Heather says. “I am forever grateful to them for giving my brother back his life.”

In an effort to raise funds and awareness for SHARE, on March 25, a 14-member team of men will be running 1,300 miles from Boston to Atlanta. Each runner will cover 22 kilometers – a distance just over a half-marathon – every day, while wearing a 22-pound military flak jacket. The 22-pound flak jackets and 22-kilometer daily segments have significance.

“There are 22 veteran suicides every day, with over 300,000 of our heroes having been diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury,” says Travis Ellis, organizer of Shepherd’s Men and the team’s only civilian. “Those numbers are still very real, and should not be accepted as the status quo. We want everyone to know that in SHARE, there is a lifesaving program that can help.”

For more information or to support Shepherd's Men, click here.

By Sara Baxter

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.