A Marine's Hardest Battle

TBI. Traumatic Brain Injury. At last there was a name for what was wrong with her husband. 

By Sandra Ownbey, Hedgesville, West Virginia

As appeared in

I didn’t know a lot about medicine or battlefield wounds, but I knew my husband. I knew Jim. And this wasn’t Jim.

Not that I suspected anything that day he called me from Iraq, August 21, 2007.

I’d answered the phone at our house at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. “Honey, I’m calling from a hospital,” Jim said. “I was in an incident. In a lot of pain, but I’m okay. Don’t worry.”

Don’t worry? Jim’s job as a sergeant in the Marine Corps was defusing mines. A day didn’t go by without me worrying.

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He told me the armored vehicle he was traveling in had triggered a 300-pound bomb buried under the road. The truck catapulted 30 feet in the air.

“They say I didn’t come to for five minutes,” he said. “They’re gonna keep me for a few days, but I’ll be able to come home on leave next week with the rest of my unit. Good news, huh?”

“The best,” I said. I hung up and thanked God for watching over him. He’d been gone seven months on this most recent deployment. I couldn’t wait to see him, to do all the things we loved to do as a family again–walks in the woods, a trip to the beach, watching a movie together.

The night his unit came home I took the kids, Jolene, 11, James, 9, and Logan, 4, and drove to the base to meet him. Jim hobbled off the bus and I ran to him, arms open wide. But he pulled away. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It was a really long flight. And I’ve got a splitting headache.”

Odd. Jim never complained. Ever. Marines are the toughest of the tough. I gave him the car keys. Jim turned out of the parking lot and eased into traffic. Without warning he pulled over to the shoulder, stopping the car.

“That pothole,” he said. “Why is it there? How long has it been like that?”

“Honey, it’s okay,” I said. “It’s just a pothole.”

He took several deep breaths, staring at the pothole. Finally we got back on the road, but no one said a word the rest of the way home. This was Jim’s third deployment. There was always an adjustment period when he came back. I just needed to give him space. Not push. Let him ease into things again.

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Once in the house, Jim ran to the bathroom. Ten minutes later he had to go again. “I feel awful,” he said, slumping on a chair. I felt his forehead. He was burning up. I got him some Tylenol and a glass of cold water. He gulped it down.

He was too uncomfortable to sleep. By morning he was in agony. I took him to the emergency room. They did blood and urine tests and a CT scan of his kidneys. The doctor’s questions made him agitated. I explained about the explosion, how it had knocked Jim out, his constant urination, his pain.

“The CT scan isn’t showing any kidney abnormalities,” the doctor finally told us. “It could be a lot of things. Something neurological? Psychological? If he doesn’t improve, come back.” He wrote a prescription for sleeping pills. I took Jim’s hand and slowly led him to the car.

Jim was the one who’d taken charge of our future and joined the Marines. He was 28 then. We were married, with two kids, living in the tiny Florida town where I’d grown up, where I thought we’d grow old together.

Jim was making a good living as an electrician, working for his father, but he wanted to do something more, to serve his country. And so in the summer of 1999 he’d enlisted. It was hard leaving my family and friends, the church I’d gone to my whole life. I cried nearly the entire way to Camp Lejeune.

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Your Comments (6)

I have been very far behind on reading my e-mails from Guideposts therefore I just ready Sandys' story about her husbands TBI condition. It truly is a shame that the men and women that give their all for our Country do not receive better care. I have to say that I believe God was the ultimate physician in Jims' case. Even though there were an immense number of doctors and medical professionals that treated Jim, God is the one who helped him the most. My prayers go out to you and your family and I also pray that you will both keep your faith in God.

You need to read two books. I think these will help, so you know these people made it and you can too. "Endal: How One Extraordinary Dog Brought a Family Back From the Brink" by Alan and Sandra Parsons and "Until Tuesday" by Luis Montalvan. Also, after reading see if you qualify to get a therapy dog. They evidently work magic for the injured soldiers, both mentally and physically injured. Good luck to you.

God is wonderful, that he give man the knowledge to help man. I think God for what he done for Jim only God can do that.

I just finished reading Sandy's story. I am her sister in law and just want
to say that Sandy is a very brave,strong woman. I know she is too humble to
say this for herself but I have watched her over the years and she has alot
of courage and patience and a strong faith in the Lord. She can also be very proud of her kids as I have watched them also be strong for their dad
and Sandy. Thanks Jimmy for your service to our country. Love, Pam

I am a disabled veteran also. I suffer from Gulf War Syndrome. Like T B I it is not understood and often miss diagnosed. I also fell off a cliff while in the service and suffered several physical injuries yet no one thought to check to see if I had suffered a brain injury because I had on a helmet and there were no apparent head wounds. Yet since then I have suffered from sever migraine and the only thing they have done is an M R I. The VA still does not look for T B I nor do they look at the whole person and everything that is wrong with them and see if there is a linking cause. They just treat one thing at a time never getting to the root of the problem. I hope you and yours continue to improve and I hope that some day the VA will learn that the whole person needs to be treated rather than just the parts too.

Have you ever considered alternative medicine, like herbal medicine and acupuncture? Those traditions do "look at the whole person". Modern western medicine is very effective against infection, but when it comes to chronic conditions, it's limited by it's own perspective of viewing illness as something separate from the person. But actually each person's condition is unique. And a good traditional Chinese doctor, for example, acknowledges that.