Whitney and I sure met a lot of motivated athletes last weekend at the Summer Military Sport Camp, and as is so often the case when it comes to volunteering, we got far more out of it
than we put in.
Out of respect for privacy, I won’t be sharing any specifics here about the individuals who participated in the camp, but I can tell you this: very few of the Vets I met used wheelchairs or a prosthesis of any kind to get around. The vast majority had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or a traumatic brain injury (TBI).
An op-ed article about the high number of veterans coming home from Iraq or Afghanistan with mental health problems happen to come out in the New York Times the very day I started volunteering at the military sports camp. The piece follows the heartbreaking story of Maj. Ben Richards. He came home in 2007 after suffering multiple concussions in Iraq, and it took three years for him to get a diagnosis of TBI and PTSD. Richards is retiring from the U.S. Army this month, and the article quotes him saying that things might have been easier if he had lost a leg in Iraq.
”I’d trade a leg for this in a heartbeat,” Ben said. “If all I was missing was a leg, I’d be a stud. And if I’d lost a leg, I’d be able to stay in the Army. That’s all I want to do.”
That notion might sound extreme, but after reading the entire piece – and talking to some of the vets at the military sports camp last weekend – I can understand why he might feel this way. From the article:
Richards’s wife, Farrah, was thrilled when he returned “safely” from Iraq in the fall of 2007, and she counted them both very, very lucky. But almost immediately, Farrah says, she noticed that the man who came home wore her husband’s skin but was different inside. “There were obvious changes in his personality,” she recalls. “He was extremely withdrawn; he would go into the bedroom for hours.” A once boisterous dad who loved to roughhouse with his children — now there are four, ages 1 to 14 — Ben no longer seemed to know how to play with them.
I’ve never felt particularly lucky for losing my sight, but at least when people see me with a guide dog or a white cane, they know what’s up. Strangers understand if I fumble for a doorknob. They aren’t hurt when I don’t recognize them waving hello. They don’t push back if I happen to bump into them in line. It’s a different story for Major Richards. Before his injury, he had taught at West Point, and had an I.Q. of about 148. Those concussions he suffered in Iraq have left him with incapacitating headaches, overwhelming fatigue and constant insomnia. After returning to the United States he tried going back to West Point to teach, but found he couldn’t read more than a few pages at a time. He would lose his train of thought in class. Students were questioning his behavior and wondering what was wrong. Last March, Richards asked to be relieved of his teaching duties.
The article refers to traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder as the signature wounds of the Iraq and Afghan wars, “partly because of the strains of repeated combat tours and partly because the enemy now relies more on bombs than bullets.” After spending time with some of those veterans at the military sports camp last week, I think they all should be given medals for courage. Nicholas D. Kristof’s conclusion to his op-ed piece in the New York Timesis spot on:
In speaking out with brutal candor about his injury and decline, Maj. Ben Richards exemplifies courage and leadership. He’s not damaged goods, but a hero. Maybe, if our leaders are listening, one of his last remaining dreams is still achievable: that his story will help win better treatment for so many others like him.