Joining the military is an act of immeasurable bravery. Those who enlist are often deployed overseas multiple times, leaving their families behind to engage in war. They fight for their country and for the rights of all Americans. Some sacrifice their lives. Many others come home wounded, forever changed into someone different.
“It’s just what I loved to do… be a soldier.” —SFC (Ret.) Victor L. Medina
Sgt. 1st Class (Ret.) Victor L. Medina was always going to be a soldier. He grew up in a military academy and joined the reserves at age 18. He attended college, but in the same way that an eight-year-old boy opens the envelope attached to a wrapped present. College wasn’t the prize. Instead, joining the army after college was the excitement for Medina.
He fulfilled his destiny by enlisting in 2002. He served for seven years after college before a traumatic brain injury (TBI) during his third tour overseas changed everything.
For the way Medina has fought for his country, his health and his family, and for his efforts to help other military TBI survivors get the medical help they need and deserve, SFC (Ret.) Victor Medina is this month’s Teach Believe Inspire honoree.
Medina served in three tours: two in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. In June of 2009, Medina was in the middle of an “ordinary” day on the job when tragedy struck. As Iraq veterans can attest, there is no such thing as an ordinary day on patrol. They must always be expecting the unexpected.
Medina was commanding a convoy of vehicles down a road in southern Iraq. The convoy was filmed by a soldier a few vehicles behind. All of a sudden, an explosion sends a plume of black smoke into the sky. An explosive projectile had struck the vehicle. The explosion sent a shock wave through the vehicle, through Medina’s helmet and through his skull.
At that moment, Medina suffered a traumatic brain injury, though it would take months for the diagnosis to come. On the outside, it appeared that Medina had suffered only minor injuries at first. He received a Purple Heart for his injuries and remained in the theater of operations. But over the next few weeks, Medina’s health declined and he began to show more and more symptoms of a TBI, though they were not recognized as such. Unfortunately, this is an extremely common occurrence in war.
The Signature Wound of the New Wars
When a soldier gets his or her leg blown off by an improvised explosive device, no one fails to understand the injury. What has been called the “signature wound” of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — traumatic brain injuries — ironically is the most difficult to see.
The number of troops that have sustained TBIs in both wars range between 150,000 and 400,000, depending on the estimate. These are physical wounds, though they cannot be seen and are difficult to diagnose. In the days and weeks following the explosion, Medina’s cognitive abilities began to wane. He began to suffer from impaired vision, hearing, speech and motor skills and incessant migraine headaches.
Unfortunately for Medina and the many soldiers returning from the Middle East with TBI, adequate medical treatment was extremely difficult to find. A Defense Department database shows that 202,281 service members were diagnosed with traumatic brain injury between 2000 and 2010.
The care many of them received when they got back to the U.S. was woefully inadequate. Also, time is a factor. These soldiers need help as soon as they return, if not sooner. Brain specialists say it is critical for TBI survivors to begin therapy as soon as possible after the injury in order to begin the process of re-wiring and healing the brain.
However, many soldiers, including many at Fort Bliss where Medina was stationed, have had to wait weeks or months before they even got an appointment to see a doctor. And once they finally did see a doctor, they were often misdiagnosed. At least one doctor even accused Medina of faking his injuries.
Fighting After the War
It took a long time and a lot of hard work for Medina and his wife Roxana Delgado to get him the care he needed and deserved. Medina first began getting help from a facility outside the military. It was at Mentis, a private neurological rehabilitation outside of El Paso, where he saw doctors and therapists who began to effectively treat his brain.
Later, after reporting by NPR and ProPublica showing the woeful treatment soldiers like Medina were receiving at Fort Bliss, Medina became one of the first patients at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICOE), the military’s $65 million, state-of-the-art treatment center for brain-injured soldiers. Medina spent three weeks at NICOE, during which he received “more than 100 hours of personalized treatment from neurologists, psychologists, physical therapists and others at the center,” according to NPR.
His health has greatly improved since his stay at NICOE, with Delgado remarking on her husband’s progress: “It’s like night and day.”
[socialObu shorturl=”http://ow.ly/QP7RY “]Our August, Teach Believe Inspire recipient Victor Medina sheds light on TBI’s and the military. [/socialObu]
Delgado and Medina have since set up a website called TBI Warrior, where they share resources on TBI for other soldiers returning wounded from war, as well as blog about their experiences. Their engagement in the efforts to help soldiers returning from war with TBI have been astounding.
With their blog and website’s readers growing rapidly, the Army took notice of the impact they were having in the TBI community. Medina has met with the vice chief of staff of the Army and Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, who was the Army’s surgeon general, to discuss them on the problem. The couple has also spoken to various military groups about the problem of getting military TBI survivors the help they need.
Like many other TBI survivors, Medina refers to the day his convoy was attacked as the start of his new life. The positive attitude that is impossible to miss when watching him speak is endlessly uplifting.
“There’s always challenges. A head injury is an abrupt change in life. But people change without head injuries,” he says.
Do You Know an Inspiring TBI Survivor?
According to the men and women who served in the Middle East with Medina, he was an elite soldier. It’s the toughness he has shown since returning to U.S. soil, however, that might save the most lives. Medina has paved the way for countless other military men and women with TBI to receive better care than was previously available.
For his service to our country, both in the Middle East and here in the States, Victor Medina is this month’s recipient of the Teach Believe Inspire Award.