The Forgotten Soldier

Many soldiers have paid the ultimate price for their service in the armed forces. These are the soldiers that we most often hear about or read about in the news. But there is another group of soldiers that have also paid a price for their dedication to their country and our freedom. These are the soldiers that have suffered a life-altering brain injury in the course of their military service. They are often the forgotten ones, who never get a story written about them or make the news. I.J. is one of those forgotten soldiers.

"The few, the proud, the Marines." It is a saying that many of us are familiar with but few of us have actually lived it. Discipline, structure, confidence and an unselfish drive are the qualities of a Marine. These were the qualities that I.J. wanted to develop and were the reasons why he enlisted in the Marines. Eventually, I.J.'s hard work and drive to succeed earned him numerous plaques and a promotion to Sergeant. I.J. was a respected leader and friend to many while serving his time in the Marines. Most of I.J.'s friends comment on his quick wit and willingness to put everyone before himself. He was the best mechanic in his unit and was responsible for working on Amphibious Assault vehicles that were used for land and water missions.

On December 19, 1999, life changed forever for 24-year-old I.J. He was involved in a high- speed motorcycle crash while on active duty with the Marines. His helmet was destroyed upon impact, causing severe damage to many parts of his brain and face, as well as his lungs, ribs, and abdominal cavity. I.J. was transported to a medical facility where he was unable to breathe on his own, had a PEG tube from which he received his nutrition and had his jaws wired shut due to the facial trauma that he suffered. He was in a coma. Approximately, one month after being injured, I.J. was discharged from the acute hospital into an acute rehabilitation program. He was confused, disoriented, agitated and impulsive, all signs of increased responsiveness. Memory, attention, judgment and safety awareness were severely impaired. A strong, confident Marine, was now entirely dependent on others for eating, hygiene and all other activities of daily living. I.J. was confined to a wheelchair, but his frustration at not being able to walk caused him to get up from his chair and fall, sometimes suffering further injuries.

Six months after his accident, I.J. was transferred to the Veteran's Administration for more treatment. His therapy was just two hours per week, but I.J.'s therapist felt that he needed a more aggressive therapy program so she searched for one. After a few months of therapy, I.J. was discharged home to his wife and two young children. He was declared permanently disabled and retired from the U.S. Marine Corps.

I.J.'s wife educated herself on rehabilitation and tried to help her husband regain some of the skills that he had lost. But it seemed as if I.J.'s cognitive and physical abilities were getting worse. I.J.'s wife then enrolled him in day programs. Unfortunately, I.J. was not making progress. He was becoming frustrated and with that came an increase in agitation, aggressiveness and impulsivity. I.J. was no longer welcome at day programs and other therapies due to his uncontrollable behavior.

I.J. was very fortunate to have a wife who refused to give up and give in. She knew that her husband needed more therapy and she was determined to get it for him. Approximately, six years following his severe head injury, the V.A. approved more rehabilitation for I.J. after he sustained another subsequent brain injury from a fall while trying to get out of his wheelchair to walk.

Six years after the accident that left Marine I.J. therapist with a severe head injury, he was finally given the opportunity to engage in an intense, brain-injury rehabilitation program at Centre for Neuro Skills® (CNS) in Bakersfield, CA. Increased safety awareness, judgment, memory, attention, balance, coordination, as well as improved visual-perception were some of the goals of I.J.'s rehabilitation program. In accordance with this, I.J. was involved in therapy five hours each day in occupational, physical, and cognitive/speech therapy, and counseling. After his therapy hours at the clinic, he returned to the residential setting where he engaged in cooking his own meals, cleaning and other household tasks, under the guidance of CNS staff.

Currently, I.J. spends time in the Adult Activities Center (AAC) at CNS. He plays cards, goes bowling and to movies in the community, is involved in movement and art therapies and enjoys hanging out with the friends he has made while at CNS. I.J. loves to talk about the Marines and the saying "Once a Marine, always a Marine" accurately describes I.J. In fact, he says that he wished he were better so that he could go to Iraq and help his fellow soldiers. After all that he has been through, he is still willing to lay his life on the line for his country, his family and countless Americans who will never know him. I.J. truly lives his life by the Marines motto, Semper Fidelis (Always Faithful).

When asked what advice he would give young soldiers coming back from Iraq who have sustained a brain injury, I.J. simply said, "Get up and march." Spoken like a true Marine. I.J. lives by this advice each and every day. He struggles with not being the person that his wife and kids knew before the accident, he struggles with not being able to do what he once could, but he symbolically marches on each and every day without giving up.

It is heartbreaking that we, as a country, have failed these young soldiers who have suffered brain injuries in the line of duty. We have not advocated for them or fought for them to get the services that they so desperately need and are entitled to. They are willing to give the ultimate sacrifice to fight for what this country believes in and are "always faithful" in their commitment. Advocate for our forgotten soldiers because they can no longer do it for themselves. We owe it to them. It is time that we take a lesson from the Marines and be faithful in our commitment to them. Semper fidelis.