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Traumatic Brain Injury: A Northwest Soldier's Struggle To Recover

Roadside bombs kill and maim U.S. soldiers on a regular basis in Iraq. The powerful blasts don’t just destroy the body. The concussive force can also damage the brain.

That’s why many soldiers are being diagnosed with TBI or Traumatic Brain Injury. Correspondent Austin Jenkins introduces us to a Northwest soldier who’s coping with TBI.

I first met Staff Sgt. Richard Kellar at a memorial service for four Fort Lewis soldiers killed in Iraq. Two of them were guys he knew.

Richard Kellar: “I’m trying to heal. I’m trying to heal by coming to this.”

Kellar — who’s 26-years old — was sitting in a wheelchair. He had on his green, dress Army uniform. I wanted to know how he got hurt.

Richard Kellar: “Nice day, perfect weather. We just rolled over the wrong spot at the wrong time and they decided to blow a thousand pound bomb.”

One soldier was killed. Kellar nearly lost his nose and remembers spitting out teeth.

Kellar was evacuated to Germany then sent to Walter Reed Hospital. After several surgeries, he was sent home to Fort Lewis. But the road to recovery is proving long and painful.

Kellar faces several more operations, but he says that’s not the worst of it.

Richard Kellar: “I can’t remember anything. I can’t remember how to make coffee. I can’t remember if I took my Vicadin. I’ll forget that I went to the bathroom.”

Kellar’s been diagnosed with a mild case of Traumatic Brain Injury — or TBI.

Doctor Fred Flynn is a neurologist who runs the TBI clinic at Madigan Army Hospital at Fort Lewis. Kellar isn’t his patient, but he says TBI symptoms also include personality changes.

Fred Flynn: “Such as impulsivity, lack of social decorum, lack of tact, difficulties with being able to check or control one’s emotional outburst. Things like this.”

TBI is now being called the signature wound of the Iraq war.

But Flynn says it took awhile for the military to recognize the problem. Partly because TBI often looks a lot like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.

Fred Flynn: “The degree of mild Traumatic Brain Injury was not realized early on until patients started to come and complain about symptoms that were initially attributed to PTSD and later determined to be more indicative of mild TBI.”

Flynn says patients typically recover from mild TBI in a matter of months. But that’s for people who hurt their head in a car accident or, say, playing football. Brain injuries from bombs may be different.

Fred Flynn: “We do have a lot to learn about blast injury, there’s no question about that. And whether or not this has a different prognosis. Are these people going to recover in the same period of time as most patients who have a typical type of acceleration, deceleration injury?”

Sgt. Kellar could perhaps help Dr. Flynn answer that question. But currently he’s receiving no treatment for his brain injury.

Surprising as that might sound, Dr. Flynn says soldiers with mild cases of TBI routinely go untreated. The feeling is time is the best healer.

Fred Flynn: “They will be screened, they will be assessed and if it’s felt like they do not need any further sub-specialty care they will be give educational brochures to take with them with a number to a case manager that they can call and get back into the system at any time that they feel that it’s necessary.”

But Sgt. Kellar says he wasn’t even given a brochure. He wants treatment and is frustrated that he’s not enrolled in a rehab program.

Dr. Flynn suggests that perhaps Kellar hasn’t talked to the right people.

Fred Flynn: “I can’t speak to this particular soldier’s case, but I can say that there are more than adequate resources available to address any individual soldiers’ needs.”

Maybe so, but Kellar says his observation is Madigan has too many patients and not enough doctors.

Richard Kellar: “Every person in Madigan is so supportive but it’s the system that’s not broken, it’s just overwhelmed.”

Kellar is overwhelmed too.

His spends his days going from doctor appointment to doctor appointment for his other injuries. He suffers from chronic pain. And has no idea what the future holds. He admits he’s not doing very well these days.

Richard Kellar: “Depression, anxiety and all the rest of that stuff. It’s bad. They give you Zoloft and they try to monitor it. And all the rest of that.”

Reporter: “Does it help?”

Richard Kellar: “I don’t know. I don’t see a difference. I’m still depressed.”

And angry. He can’t help it — maybe it’s the brain injury, maybe the PTSD.

Kellar’s wife Sheree often bears the brunt of it.

Sheree Kellar: “He gets frustrated and yells and takes it out on me because we’re close and he doesn’t have anything else for his frustrations to go towards.”

It’s been five months since Sgt. Kellar was injured. He and his wife are doing the only thing they can - taking it day by day. Hoping time will heal the physical and emotional wounds.

Sheree Kellar: “Love will conquer all pretty much and I believe that we’ll get through it together.”

Richard Kellar: “We fight sometimes, we don’t, just like a normal married couple.”

Sheree Kellar: “Ya, but we love each other.”

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