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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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During his second tour in 2005, Savelkoul was responsible for giving the OK after he scanned a route with the Raven and determined that there were no signs of IEDs, or improvised explosive devices. In an article for a base newsletter[14] , he proudly told the reporter that his job saved soldiers' lives. "We're protecting them from the sky," he said. One day, however, a convoy driving down a route he had checked hit an IED. Details are unclear. Savelkoul rarely spoke of it. The bomb destroyed one of the vehicles. Several soldiers apparently died in the blast. "It blew the truck into nothing. You didn't even know it was a Humvee," said Krebsbach, who remembered seeing the vehicle after it was towed back to base. He said Savelkoul became sullen and withdrawn afterward. "It was hard to get him not to fixate" on that incident, he said.

Bruce Savelkoul remembers getting a solemn phone call from his son after the explosion.

"Dad, I'm responsible for those deaths," Brock told his father.

"No, you're not," Bruce responded, trying to console him. One of Savelkoul's commanders, who did not want to be identified because the Army had not authorized him to comment, said that he had looked into the incident and concluded that Savelkoul was not negligent in carrying out his duties.

In any case, the Humvee deaths weighed on Savelkoul, as did the failure of a brief marriage, which ended in divorce just a few months before he left Iraq in January 2006. To Angie, his sister, he seemed different. Although some family members had suffered depression, Savelkoul had never shown any signs of mental distress. "He wasn't his normal self. He was very quiet, withdrawn," Angie said. "It's like he wasn't there."

With straight blond hair and an open, honest face, Angie is the glue of the Savelkoul family, the little sister who keeps tabs on everyone. A labor and delivery nurse married to a plumber, she juggles crazy work hours with family crises and the kids' basketball games. Through it all, she made sure to communicate with Brock regularly. When he deployed to Iraq again in October 2008, she convinced him to open a Facebook account. They exchanged messages after the Jan. 16 explosion. Brock assured her he was OK.

That was why Angie got nervous when Brock didn't respond to her messages after he left for Thailand. "You need to write, call, something," she wrote. " ... gettin worried ... "

She had reason to be. Her brother had begun to fall apart.

Falling Apart

Photos taken of Savelkoul in Thailand show him acting as soldiers often do on leave, partying in bars, surrounded by friends and women. It's impossible to know exactly what happened, but about a week after his arrival, he began sending out strange messages: "I'm under special army training in Thailand ... It's crazy!!!" read one. Nothing in his military records indicates he received any training in Thailand. Friends remember getting nonsensical text messages on their cell phones. Bruce Savelkoul said Brock called him from Thailand in the middle of the night.

"'Dad, there are guys trying to kill me, Dad, you got to help me,'" Bruce said his son told him. "He was absolutely paranoid. I was 7,000 miles away. What could we do?"

At some point, U.S. Embassy and military officials picked up Savelkoul and transported him to Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu. There he was placed under lockdown and diagnosed as having suffered a psychotic breakdown.

 
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