It is, as Karen puts it, their “new normal.” This existence in Mobile began when Jon returned as a National Guardsman from Iraq in 2005, and it’s not going away. Jon suffered a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder from a roadside bomb that threw him against a concrete wall, Karen said.
Karen is Jon’s constant caregiver. He no longer drives, will never work again, can’t handle finances, and doesn’t do car rides or crowds well.
When Jon’s TBI causes memory loss, his PTSD often kicks into high gear. It’s a cruel cycle.
“He doesn’t mean to, but a lot of times if he gets upset or aggravated because he’s in a situation that makes him uncomfortable, I catch the brunt of it,” Karen said. “He’ll usually fuss and holler at me. It’s just the stress of it all. Unless you live with someone who has traumatic brain injury, it’s difficult to understand the impact of it.”
Life for returning veterans can affect Alabama communities in ways many people may not notice. The Mobile/Pensacola area, where Karen lives, has produced one of the country’s largest deployments of reserves and National Guardsmen.
“In a few years, it’s going to be a huge factor in this area,” Karen said. “They can’t keep jobs. I know some people who have had four, five or six jobs since they’ve been back because they can’t function with people or can’t remember what they did. A lot of them have GI bills. But if you have cognitive learning disabilities, the GI bill doesn’t do any good.”
Soldiers without a military base to rely upon get returned to communities and become dependent on an overwhelmed Department of Veterans Affairs, she said.
“Even though TBI is the signature issue of these wars, they weren’t prepared for this when guys started coming home,” Karen said. “If you came back with an open-head injury from TBI or lost a limb or hearing or vision, then you do rehab. But the majority of these guys don’t have an open-head injury.”
“VA has yet to understand the impact on their daily lives. They only see them for maybe 30 minutes. They don’t see them not remembering to take their medication, or not being able to navigate where they’ve been for 20 years.”
Jon sees a VA doctor every four months. Karen said that’s not enough and they struggle to get claims approved based on notes doctors put into the VA system.
“You seek a claim but only see the doctor one or two times, and the people in the benefits office say there’s not enough information yet to determine the issue,” Karen said. “You have to spend another six to eight months being seen to have enough information in order to file your claim.”
Jon’s primary care and mental health doctors are in Mobile. But three or four times a month, Karen must drive Jon about 200 miles round-trip to Biloxi or Pensacola for other appointments, including most emergency visits.
“VA will on occasion allow you to go to a civilian ER, but when you go there, you never know if VA will pay for it,” Karen said. “Jon doesn’t do well in a vehicle. It’s extremely stressful sometimes just to make a doctor’s appointment.”
The mother of five grown children, Karen accepts her new life, “but as a human you can only take so much.” She is grateful for a VA program in which a staff member visits every three months to check on her and offer some free time.
“I don’t want to say it gets easier. I guess you just adjust,” Karen said. “Jon’s a trooper and goes where he needs to go. Sometimes it’s rough after it’s all over with. But we have to keep trying.”