My primary job is Division Behavioral Health NCOIC (non-commissioned officer-in-charge) for the 101st Airborne here in Afghanistan. But an NCO was needed to help get a TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) program started up on the base, so I was designated to this duty upon my arrival. I’ll be honest--initially I was a bit disappointed to put my job on pause (particularly my travel to other smaller/more remote areas in the region) to do something else. I wasn’t exactly sure what I’d be doing and hadn’t had much experience with TBI clients previously. But what an amazing opportunity this has turned out to be—beginning a program that will help Troops from all over the country who are brought here for screening, testing, and treatment for various head injuries—and most importantly, the deserved amount of support and comfort when recovery is necessary.
I attended a meeting recently where my two bosses (an Army Psychiatrist and an Air Force Physical Therapist) presented information on TBI and also introduced the TBI program for our base to a group of Army leadership from the region. (Two of the leaders already have similar TBI programs established in their areas from which we’ve gotten ideas.) This was a learning opportunity for me as well in regard to how the military is placing increased emphasis on screening and treatment of possible brain injuries very similarly to the NFL’s approach. For example, a Troop will be required to see proper medical professionals for screening following any incident such as a vehicle rollover or being within a specified distance of any exploded ordinance—regardless of whether or not the Troop seems to have been affected. It is also mandatory for Troops to be examined by a neurologist and undergo significant testing from a neuropsychologist when there are subsequent incidences—again, regardless of symptoms. While some Troops may indeed be ok, and some are not happy with leaving their jobs to get the testing done, this is a great thing! Opening this TBI program prevents Troops from having to travel further, such as to Germany, for such testing and treatment.
Opening The House, as I like to call it, will give Troops a more comfortable place to stay while they are here for various intervals of time. Some guys may only be here for a few days’ worth of testing and then they are released because they check out ok or the injury was slight and they have healed adequately (I say guys because they are mostly male—most of TBI’s tend to be male due to the kinds of jobs that put Troops at higher risk of such injuries). Other guys may be here much longer if they’ve had an injury that’s hindering them from doing some vital part of their job but yet is not serious enough to send them to hospital inpatient status or end their careers. We are making it a point to make their experience as non-clinical as possible. So I make it a point not to say “TBI clinic,” but I say “TBI House” instead. I really don’t even like the TBI part—it’s often an intimidating term, isn’t it: “Traumatic Brain Injury.” Another large component of the House is encouragement and education. I make it a point to get the guys up out of their rooms and talking with one another.
One theme that keeps popping up to me here in Afghanistan is “everything’s relative.” For example, I was asking two of our first House Guests for feedback on their rooms. One guy replied that the rooms were luxury compared to the fact that they often sleep on the ground when they are out on missions, adding that it’s great when you get a place on the ground near the muffler of a vehicle to stay warm when it’s cold. Their job (of choice, mind you) is similar to what you’ve seen if you watched the movie, “Hurt Locker” but they play a different role. They clear the routes where Troops and locals will be traveling: “Clearing” meaning sweeping, searching, and yes, often finding IED’s (Improvised Explosive Devises) that may have killed and maimed travelers otherwise. So like I said, everything is relative. Remember these guys next time you think your mattress isn’t comfortable enough or your bedmate is snoring.
The first five guys in The House have each been inspirational to me in a different way. It is great to be able to offer them small comforts such as their own bed in a private room to replace the cot or litter (stretcher) they would otherwise be sleeping on in a big communal tent. It’s nice to be able to offer them things like soap, deodorant, and toothbrushes my friends and family have sent from the States—that’s important for those who have been MEDEVAC’ed here (by helicopter) after an accident with none of their personal belongings. Getting to sit and eat dinner with real-life heroes who willingly put their lives in danger to save the lives of others is something few people have the chance to do. Hearing their real-life stories is humbling and makes one realize, “it’s all relative.” Spending my time helping guys like this on their road to recovery definitely does not feel like work at all. My hope is that everyone in our profession feels this way at various times in their “jobs.”
Natosha Monroe is an Army Reserve Mental Health Specialist stationed in Afghanistan. She is a counselor and PhD candidate passionate about increasing Troop access to counseling services. Her blog contents are not representative of the Army or Department of Defense in any way.