TBI: A Military Wife's Mission to Support Her Wounded Warrior

TBI: A Military Wife's Mission to Support Her Wounded Warrior

An inspiring story of a military wife finding strength in a different kind of war: helping her husband, a retired 21-year Marine veteran, deal with his traumatic brain injury.

Guideposts: Tonia Sargent and her husband, Kenny

Since the Iraq war began five years ago, more than 30,000 American servicemen and women—including my husband, Kenny, a Marine master sergeant—have been wounded. In one sense, that's actually a hopeful number. Battlefield medics these days are so skilled they're saving soldiers who, in any other war, would've died.

That's what happened to Kenny. During a firefight in Najaf a bullet ricocheted off an armored personnel carrier and pierced his head, entering under his right eye and exiting the left side of his skull. Medics kept him alive long enough to fly to a Baghdad military hospital. In a matter of days he was on his way to America.

Unfortunately, that's not where the story ends. Not for Kenny, not for anyone else with war wounds, especially the thousands suffering what has become Iraq's signature injury, traumatic brain damage. For those warriors and their families, a battlefield injury is like the start of a whole new war—not only to heal, but to navigate an often overwhelmed military medical system.

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That, too, is what happened to Kenny—and to me. Up to the day Kenny was wounded I was what you could call a typical Marine wife. After—well, let's just say I've discovered a fighting strength I never knew I had.

I first began to realize what we were up against the day Kenny arrived at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. It was five days after his injury and I was frantic. The only information I'd had came from patchy cell phone calls to officers and doctors in Iraq.

I'd had to drop everything—I taught aerobics at a YMCA near Camp Pendleton, where we lived with our two teenagers, Tasha and Alishia—figure out who would take care of the girls and board a red-eye to Maryland. I'd even had to put off seeing Kenny to fill out a financial hardship application to afford the rooming house provided for relatives of the wounded.

When I got upstairs to the intensive-care unit I saw a bank of monitors near the nurses' station. One, identified by Kenny's Social Security number, glowed with an X ray of a shattered skull. I drew a sharp breath and asked for the room number. I was starting down the hall when a doctor grabbed my arm. "Ma'am, why don't you sit here first and let me brief you on his injuries."

I stared at the doctor, incredulous. What could possibly be more soothing to Kenny than the loving presence of his wife? "I'm sorry," I said. "He needs me. I don't care how bad he looks. I've been waiting five days to see him and I'm going to his room right now."

The doctor let go of my arm and I hurried to Kenny's room. I paused at the door to compose myself then walked in. I didn't recognize him. His head was swollen and disfigured, marked with dried blood and rows of staples. He lay passively, hooked to massive machines.

"Kenny, it's me," I said softly, trying not to cry. "Squeeze my hand if you know who I am." His head didn't move. But he squeezed my hand.

The following weeks I discovered that the disorienting experiences of those first days were only the beginning. Kenny and I had met in high school, married young, and for the next 17 years, raised our girls on bases around the country.

We knew a lot about being a Marine family. But nothing had prepared me for all the paperwork, decisions and medical terminology that came at us. I didn't go to college and had no medical or legal training. I had to rely on my wits every time I was asked to sign something.

Early on I was presented with documents that would have retired Kenny from active duty, transferring his care to the Veterans Administration. I didn't know exactly what that meant. But something about it seemed wrong. Didn't they think he would get better? I didn't sign the papers.

I soon realized I had to be equally vigilant about Kenny's care. His injury had left him with near-total amnesia and great difficulty speaking. Doctors and therapists worked hard with him. Some were incredibly dedicated. But there were many patients on the ward, and the staff was pulled in many directions.

Sometimes, doctors even had to accompany politicians and other VIPs touring the floor to visit wounded soldiers. As soon as they left I returned to a routine I'd developed. I got Kenny out of bed, washed him, took him around the ward and pointed out rooms with other Marines.

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No subject got him talking like his fellow Marines. The week's highlight was Sunday phone calls from the 15 men he'd commanded in Iraq. That, or me renting movies or talking about Tasha and Alishia.

As weeks went by I felt more confident. I learned every aspect of Kenny's care, to the point I could do it when nurses weren't available. I learned enough medical terms to talk knowledgeably with doctors—me, an aerobics teacher!

And I got savvy enough to request a copy of every piece of paper added to Kenny's medical record. When a new doctor or therapist came in asking Kenny questions he'd answered a thousand times before—or couldn't answer at all—I pulled out my records and pointed straight to the information.

Just as I was getting the hang of things,  Kenny was transferred to a VA rehabilitation hospital in Palo Alto, California. We were flown in a military transport plane. I had just gotten him settled into his room when a nurse said, "Visiting hours are from 1 to 7 p.m."

I looked at her, surprised. "I'm sorry, I'm not a visitor. I'm Sgt. Sargent's wife and have been at his bedside for the last month. He has amnesia. I assumed I'd be sleeping here."

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