Soldier Inspires Others With Brain-injury Recovery

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)

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