Faith Helps Veteran Overcome Survivor's Guilt, PTSD and TBI

Faith Helps Veteran Overcome Survivor's Guilt, PTSD and TBI

This Iraq vet wondered why she'd been allowed to survive a bomb attack, but she came to understand that she could honor her fallen comrades by living a full and faithful life.

Adele (on Mount Whitney’s summit) likes the No Barriers motto: What’s within you is stronger than what’s in your way.

I spent last spring doing something that might have stunned anyone who knows me—hiking deep in the backwoods on the Appalachian Trail. All by myself.

Why would people think that’s so strange? Well, for one thing, I lost my right eye in a roadside bomb attack while serving in the military in Baghdad. That same bomb blew away much of my shoulder and part of my cheek. I’m slowly losing vision in my left eye and I struggle to remember things that just happened—the result of a traumatic brain injury (TBI).

On top of everything else, I live with PTSD. It’s not as bad as when I first came home from Iraq. But loud noises still scare me. I rarely get a full night’s sleep. I scan my surroundings constantly. Doesn’t sound much like a confident outdoorswoman, does it? And yet, as I hiked through those lush eastern woodlands and topped out on peak after peak, there was no place on earth I’d rather have been.

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I’m in my late forties now, and there is nothing in my past to indicate that I’d end up a dedicated long-distance solo hiker. I grew up in a military family in Rhode Island. We did not hike. Outdoors for me was the backyard.

Mom and Dad both served in the Navy, and my three older brothers went into the military too. So it was pretty obvious what I’d do after school. I joined the Air Force and became a law-enforcement specialist. I moved up to become a special investigator and eventually found myself doing counterintelligence in Baghdad at the height of the fighting.

One day in February 2006 I was told to assemble a team to meet with an informant in the city. I gathered a security detail and asked Dan, a civilian intelligence agent who worked as my partner, to accompany me. We piled into two SUVs and set out.

A bomb detonated on the right side of our convoy. I was conscious long enough to know I’d been hurt. Then I passed out. I awoke five days later at a military hospital in Germany. It was there that someone told me Dan had been killed, along with Jesse, one of the National Guardsmen on the security detail.

All I could think was, Why not me? I was a single woman with no children. Dan and Jesse were fathers. How could the God I had prayed to as a kid allow such a thing to happen? How? Lying there in my hospital bed, I felt guilt and anger build inside me until they seemed to fill my soul. Why bother praying? God obviously didn’t care—if he was even there at all.

I spent three months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., enduring multiple surgeries until at last I had decent vision in my left eye, a prosthetic in my right eye and a mostly functional shoulder.


The treatment focused on my physical symptoms. Like a good airman, I pushed on, trying to ignore the deeper injury inside me. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t stop thinking about Dan and Jesse. Anger and guilt consumed me. I became anxious and withdrawn. I barely slept.

One day, just to see what would happen, I walked into the chapel at Walter Reed. I lasted less than five minutes in the white wooden pews. The more I stared at the lectern up front with its Bible lying open, the madder I got.

I left Walter Reed and threw myself into work. I could no longer serve in a combat zone so I transferred back to law enforcement, doing internal investigations at an Air Force base in Colorado. That was a challenge, since my short-term memory was shaky and my shoulder injury made some of the physical aspects of the job more difficult.

I was becoming a recluse, afraid even to leave my house. Finally I couldn’t take it. I got referred to the medical center at Fort Carson and was diagnosed with TBI and PTSD. Soon afterward, I took medical retirement.

In 2013, I decided to return to Rhode Island, to the house I’d grown up in. By then both my parents had died and the house stood vacant. One morning, shortly before moving back home, I woke up with words echoing in my mind, as if someone had been speaking in my sleep. You owe it to Dan and Jesse to keep living.

I lay there, stunned. And yet, at the same time, I felt more clearheaded than I had in years. The words rang deeply true. The question was—what to do about them?

That very day, I was on my computer and saw an e-mail from an organization called No Barriers. “Just for veterans: Climb Mount Whitney!” the subject line said. I got e-mails like that all the time, promoting stuff for veterans.


Keep living. If I hadn’t heard those words earlier that morning, I would have deleted the e-mail without a thought. I clicked on it instead, even though climbing the tallest peak in the contiguous United States—14,505 feet—was about the last thing I ever imagined myself doing.

I’d heard of No Barriers. It was a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping disabled people gain confidence through wilderness adventures. It had a special mountain-climbing program for veterans sponsored by Wells Fargo. I replied to the e-mail, asking for more information.

I heard back almost right away: Would I be willing to talk by phone? Whoa. Cautiously I answered yes. Soon I was on the phone with a cheerful, energetic woman who gently but persistently got me to tell my story and explain why doing something like climbing Mount Whitney might help me.

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