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Operation TBI Freedom Gives Vets with PTSD a Way Forward

June 30, 2020

John S. believes that if not for Craig Hospital’s Operation TBI Freedom, he’d still be in jail today.

As a veteran of the Iraq war, John is unique. He saw combat. That may seem obvious to the average person, but in reality, only 10% of troops see combat and deploy weapons. Being on the front lines of the Iraq war and involved in the initial push, John was engaged in up close conflict and experienced both a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Without warning, John had to leave the Army for medical conditions. The transition was fast and he wasn’t prepared. He began abusing drugs and alcohol, which caused him to lose the most important things in life—his wife, parental rights to his daughter and his home. His life continued to spiral, and he ended up living on the streets and eventually spending time in jail.

But that’s all behind him now. He’s two years clean and sober, has a new fiancé and a six-month-old daughter, and he just closed on his first house. Thanks, in part, to Operation TBI Freedom (OTF) and the state’s Veterans Trauma Court—an alternative to jail for US military veterans and active-duty personnel with trauma spectrum disorders and/or substance abuse issues.

“After lots of failures, I finally decided it was time,” John says. “I was tired of losing things. I was in a cycle that repeated itself over and over again.”

Understanding TBI and PTSD

According to Steve Smith, Military Program Coordinator, reentering civilian life can be a real challenge for soldiers who have TBI or PTSD. Besides such physical symptoms as persistent headaches and dizziness, people who experience a traumatic brain injury can have trouble speaking or understanding, difficulty concentrating, and feel confused, among other symptoms. PTSD compounds that.

“The power of Operation TBI Freedom is that we understand. Our clients know they have Brothers and Sisters in Arms that won’t leave them behind,” Steve says.

Operation TBI Freedom provides vets like John “a way forward” as Steve says, via one-on-one case management and working closely with the Veteran’s Trauma Court (VTC) to give vets who have made mistakes a hand up and a second chance. OTF also provides crisis management, mentoring and peer support, emergency financial assistance for immediate needs, employment assistance, psychosocial education, medical and mental health connection, and assistive technology.

“I don’t think I would have made it through VTC without the people at Operation TBI Freedom. There’s a distinct feel there. It’s pretty much run by vets who all have similar stories to mine,” John adds.

Creating a life plan

John credits his assigned Military Support Specialist, Tim Patrick, for keeping him on track with a life plan—a driving force of OTF that clearly outlines steps vets need to take to succeed. John also appreciates Tim serving as an important liaison with the trauma court, probation officers and community-based organizations.

“Number one on my life plan was to stay sober and stay connected,” John says.

After incredible tenacity and hard work, John completed his court requirements in June and graduated from Veteran Trauma Court. That doesn’t mean he’s done. He still chooses to attend OTF groups weekly to maintain his strength and keep his head clear. OTF offers a support group specific to veterans of combat, which John finds “incredibly stabilizing.”

“That place is a healing place. Everyone has had a similar experience, which makes you feel comfortable. We check on each other and make sure everyone is alright,” he adds.

Turning lives around

“John was ready to take his life back and I’m really proud of him,” says Tim Patrick, Military Support Specialist with OTF.

Tim doesn’t do his job to get rich; he does it to help vets, like himself: “Everyone who has raised their hand to serve goes into a situation where they leave their loved ones and don’t know if they are coming back. For these people, I do not hesitate to give all I have. It’s my honor to walk beside them and help lift them out of the dark and into the light.”

Craig relies heavily on private donations from generous donors like the founder of OTF, Dob Bennett, and Ken Marquardt (Pickleball Ken) to administer Operation TBI Freedom. OTF serves 325-360 veterans at any given time. To learn more about supporting OTF, contact the Craig Foundation.

Signs of PTSD

Steve Smith, OTF Military Program Coordinator, outlines signs of PTSD he often sees in vets in the program. He advises friends and family to listen, avoid giving unsolicited advice, and accept a loved one for where they’re at.

  • Reexperiencing a traumatic event. This can come as a flashback, reoccurring nightmares, or dissociative reactions triggered by a smell or scene that reminds you of the trauma.
  • Avoiding and detaching from other people
  • Hyper arousal to loud noises
  • Sleep problems
  • Agitated, irritable, angry outbursts where the emotion doesn’t match the problem
  • Mood changes, hard time concentrating, depression, guilt, shame and blame even when there was nothing that could have changed the outcome of the event

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