WASHINGTON — His first significant brain injury was a setback, but when he experienced several more a few years later, Army Capt. Galen Peterson figured he’d reached the end of his military career.
“One of the biggest things that I struggled with when I was going through [traumatic brain injury] is the impression that my career and life as I knew it was over, that there was no way I could stay on active duty, much less an armor officer,” he said.
But with hard work and perseverance, he was able not only to remain on active duty, but also to take on his current job as the rear detachment commander for the 1st Battalion, 68th Armor Regiment, at Fort Carson, Colo.
While he endured several attacks, Peterson first was significantly injured when a roadside bomb exploded next to his tank in Iraq in 2006. He suffered shrapnel wounds, an injured shoulder and a mild traumatic brain injury, commonly known as a concussion.
“We were doing a patrol,” he said. “I don’t really remember much else.”
Peterson was evacuated to Balad, and then on to Landstuhl, Germany. He returned to his unit toward the end of the deployment, just in time to return with them to Fort Carson. About a year later, Peterson returned to Iraq to take part in the offensive in Sadr City. In March 2008, Peterson’s unit was called on to build a wall around Sadr City as part of the anti-insurgency effort, and underwent intense fire from rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devices. In April, Peterson’s tank again was hit by an IED.
While he experienced symptoms, including severe vomiting, he hid them from his medic and unit for fear of being “benched” again. However, Peterson again was injured in June, when his tank was struck with another IED. This time, he suffered a dislocated shoulder, broken ribs and another TBI, which knocked him unconscious for a few hours following the blast. Peterson was sent to a combat support hospital, and eventually to Fort Carson. He was diagnosed with moderate TBI this time, which can result in short- or long-term problems with independent function, and entered rehabilitation that would last for about nine months.
“It was pretty difficult,” he said. “I think the first several months though, I just existed, and that was about it. I don’t think I really had a whole lot of thoughts during that period.”
Peterson struggled with severe symptoms related to the brain injuries, including a “permanent migraine,” balance and vision issues, and difficulty reading, focusing and even thinking.
Early on, Peterson said, he focused on the “here and now,” but as his recovery progressed, he struggled with frustration over what he perceived as his “stupidity,” a tough pill to swallow for an accomplished officer and West Point graduate.
“I wasn’t sure what kind of recovery I would get,” he said. “And then as therapy went along, one of the frustrating things was [that] it was hard for me to see progress, because it’s very slow, very subtle progress.”
Peterson underwent intensive physical, occupational and speech therapy. It was a tough time, he said, but looking back now, he acknowledges how much of a difference even the most challenging aspects of therapy made.
“It was very frustrating, it was very painful, but it was pretty good stuff,” he said. “It made a huge difference. “When I was done, my therapist showed me … my work over the course of the several months of rehab,” he added. “Looking back on it now and talking with people who knew me and were around for my recovery, it’s pretty impressive to look at it from my standpoint.”
Peterson credits much of his recovery to a strong support system that includes his rear detachment, friends and family, and his wife, Sarah, who is a nurse at a local hospital. The couple met before his first deployment, but didn’t tie the knot until Peterson was nearing the end of his recovery.
“She’s been a pillar of support in terms of moral support,” he said of his wife. The couple now has a daughter, Brynn, who was born in December. These days, Peterson said, he’s “pretty much completely back to normal.”
“There are a few things that trip me up, that I still have issues with, but by and large I’m back in the full swing of things,” he said. “I’m able to do my duties without … interference. I’m able to keep track of all the different pieces of information that are constantly running through my head from day-to-day operations. I’m able to work out without having headaches or falling over. I’m about as close to 100 percent as you can expect.”
With his life back on track, Peterson now has turned his attention to helping other service members. He’s bringing a message of hope to others facing brain injuries through a video profile posted on the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury website.
Peterson said he hopes other people will be inspired by his recovery story –- a story he would like to have heard when he first was injured. The key message he’d like to get across is for people to “hang in there.”
“Don’t give up hope on it,” he said.
The video also contains a message about the importance of seeking help. “It takes strength to admit that you need help, and it takes a lot more strength to be patient enough with yourself to allow yourself to recover, and eventually you do,” Peterson said in the video. “There’s no shame in getting checked out like you’re supposed to.”
Peterson also advises soldiers to keep an eye out for symptoms in their battle buddies, who may be better able to recognize symptoms in others than themselves. Some common symptoms of mild TBI include headache, dizziness, balance problems, fatigue, ringing in ears, poor concentration, memory problems, anxiety, irritability and depression.
Most people recover from mild TBI within three months, according to a TBI fact sheet, and even if someone has had more than one concussion, a full recovery is expected.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)