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Aftershock: The Ticking Time Bomb of Soldiers' Traumatic Brain Injuries

Soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are a generation of warriors whose fight has shifted from external combat zones to invisible internal battlefields.

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Savelkoul's troubles in finding treatment were not unusual. The majority of VA patients are older and served in the Vietnam War. The VA has struggled to figure out how best to adapt to the newer, younger veterans now seeking mental health counseling and therapy. The issue is especially acute in rural areas.

Savelkoul's family noticed how much he had changed. He couldn't remember birthdays, anniversaries or even the date his mother had died. On a shopping trip with Angie, he didn't recognize the house where they had grown up. He seemed uncoordinated and had trouble playing catch with his nephew. Trips to the Minot Zoo and a Minnesota Twins baseball game ended in disaster when he grew panicked at the crowds around him.

"All these people are dead. Why should I be alive? I'm lost. I'm confused," he would tell Angie.

The family felt confused, too, and unsure what to do. As a nurse, Angie was upset at all the different medications Savelkoul was taking -- antidepressants, antipsychotics, mood stabilizers, sleeping pills. "They weren't doing anything for his symptoms," Angie said. "Every doctor he'd see, they'd give him something different. ... You get that many meds, they interact with each other. They can be dangerous."

"We wanted him home because we thought he needed family," Bruce said. "He was not ready for the real world. ... We didn't know how to handle him."

On the evening of Sept. 21, Brock sent Angie and Bruce a text message. It read: "I love you guys more than anything. Never forget it. I can't do this anymore."

Bruce raced home. On the stove, Bruce found a grocery list that Brock had begun with the word "butter" at the top. After that, Brock had scrawled a note. It read: "No hope for me. Love you so much."

A licensed gun dealer, Bruce found that Brock had ripped open boxes containing guns that he planned to sell. Missing was a DPMS AR-15, an assault rifle similar to the M16 used in Iraq, two hunting rifles and three handguns. Also gone were two 30-round magazines and several hundred rounds of hollow point ammunition.

Bruce went to Brock's room and found he had destroyed his laptop computer. He also had smashed open a small, wooden case that hung next to his bed. It contained photos, mementos and awards from Iraq. He had taken out his Purple Heart.

Bruce knew he had no alternative. He called the police on his own son. "I didn't know what to do. I thought that he was gonna hate me forever, but I really had to call the cops," he said.

The hunt for Savelkoul had begun.

The Chase

At around 6:20 p.m. on Sept. 21, Savelkoul walked into a convenience store called the Kum N Go in Watford City, a small town about 120 miles west of Minot. Police records say that he pointed a rifle at one of the patrons and asked, "Do you want to die?" Then he fled the store.

He headed south down Highway 85, a narrow, two-lane road undergoing construction repairs. A Watford City police cruiser heard the call about the altercation at the Kum N Go, spotted Savelkoul headed out of the city and turned on his lights and siren.

Savelkoul gunned his Tacoma through the narrow gravel beds of the construction zone. He kept going faster and faster, 60, 70, 80, until he hit 105 miles an hour, police records say[17] , flying down the arrow straight road, across the river, toward the North Dakota badlands.

 
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