Aftershock: The Ticking Time Bomb of Soldiers' Traumatic Brain Injuries
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Savelkoul, Gusman remembered, had symptoms similar to scores of patients that have gone through his program. He suffered nightmares, severe depression, trouble sleeping, headaches. "He's not unique in what we see," Gusman said. Savelkoul struggled to adjust to the program. Sometimes he would participate. Sometimes he would withdraw, apparently not convinced that he needed help and uncertain whether he wanted to remain in the Army. "There is anger, fear and shame. A lot of people wonder why they are in this treatment and others are not. They get stuck like that," Gusman said.
After about two months in the program, Savelkoul wandered off campus -- which is not closed -- and somehow made his way to Sacramento. Bruce Savelkoul got a call a short while later. Brock told him that he was back in Baghdad, surrounded by thousands of people. At about the same time, Gusman got a call from a staff member. Savelkoul had been found in the Old Town section of the city, a tourist area near the Sacramento River. He had been drinking and was having a panic attack, they told Gusman. Gusman sent a van to pick him up and transport him to Travis Air Force Base. Eventually, Savelkoul was sent back to Fort Riley. Gusman said Savelkoul was not yet ready for his program and that the military did not aggressively pursue other treatment options: "The problem in this country is that we haven't accepted the hard reality that we can train people to be in a war. ... But we can't train somebody in how they're going to respond."
For the military, it was the last straw. Staff Sgt. Brock B. Savelkoul was honorably discharged from the Army on March 31, 2010. He had served two years, three months and four days in Iraq. His awards included the Purple Heart, the Army Commendation Medal and the Army Achievement Medal. He was placed on temporary disability due to post-traumatic stress disorder. He was ordered to be re-evaluated in six months.
Savelkoul was going home.
The Others Struggle
In September, just before Savelkoul was shipped off to California, the rest of Psycho platoon returned from Iraq. They began to split up. Junge was transferred to Fort Campbell in Kentucky. On a test he took shortly after getting back, a screen given to all soldiers to check for potential brain injury and mental health problems, Junge had filled in "Yes" for every question relating to traumatic brain injury. Positive answers are supposed to trigger an evaluation by a medical professional. But nobody at the local TBI clinic ever examined Junge.
Junge, his wife Holly and their kids moved to a modest home with two magnolia trees in the front yard in Clarksville, Tenn., a short distance from their new post. As they settled in, Holly began to notice changes. Junge would snap at the kids, something he had never done before. He started building a tree house in the front yard but never quite finished. Before joining the Army, Junge had been an air force mechanic on the B-2 stealth bomber, one of the most complicated pieces of machinery ever invented. Now he struggled to fit together the pieces of a trampoline in their backyard. Holly, a nutritionist with a soft face and brown hair, grew worried. "From day one, he was a different person," she said. "He was very irritable. He doesn't sleep well. He forgot things, little things, but kind of annoying."
One day, the couple's 10-year-old daughter asked Holly, "Why is Daddy so mean to you?" Recalling the question, Holly began to cry. "Everything was wonderful. Not that's he's not now," she said, wiping tears from her face. "But it's different."