Iraq War Veteran Shares Her Ordeal Of Living With Traumatic Brain Injury
Traumatic Brain Injury has been called the signature injury of the Iraq war. Nationwide, studies suggest 300,000 returning veterans experience the symptoms of Traumatic Brain Injury or TBI. In San Diego, the V.A. Medical Center reports about 50 veterans a month present at the TBI clinic for testing.
For those who find themselves changed in ways they cannot explain, a diagnosis of TBI is the beginning of a long road to recovery. Sage Bird is a young woman who is on that road.
Sage is a slight woman. Her hair is cut short like a boy’s and her eyes have a clarity and vulnerability that is striking. She turns 25 years old this month.
Sage stayed for a while at Veterans Village in San Diego, which offers support and housing to homeless veterans. Sitting in one of their counseling rooms, she told me her story. She says she signed up for the Marines at age 18 to get money for college and for a chance to see the world.
Sage was deployed to Iraq in 2003. Her assignment was with a maintenance platoon. On convoys, she says she witnessed some terrible things, things she says a no girl should ever see. Then one day, while inflating a huge tractor trailer tire, the tire blew up and the metal cage that was supposed to protect her came loose and hit her on the head.
“For the first couple of months,” Sage said, “I couldn’t really think that straight. I would forget things and had problems picking stuff up and remembering things. I was in the hospital for a bit. So that’s my injury that I sustained, they call it traumatic brain injury, TBI.”
Sage says when she left the makeshift hospital she was put on bed rest for a couple of months. Her TBI symptoms were confusion, disorientation, inability to focus, stated to blend with other symptoms, including extreme irritability, inability to sleep, high anxiety, depression -- the classic symptoms of Post Traumatic Disorder or PTSD.
Sage found when she returned to the Unites States that she was having a hard time being around people and she couldn’t drive. She tried various jobs, including working at McDonald’s, but found to her consternation she couldn’t even assemble a burger.
“It would be really simple,” Sage said. “Like how you build a burger with the mayo and then the bread and then onion and then lettuce. But for some reason I was kind of slow, my physical eye-hand coordination was off to me. I couldn’t remember which piece goes first. They’d be, like, 'Why are you doing the ketchup now, the ketchup goes last.' You know, stuff like that, and sometimes, to this day, I still have a little bit of memory relapse like that.”
Sage’s state of mind deteriorated steadily. For a long time, she says, she was unaware of what was wrong with her, but her life was changing, and she was losing the person she had once been before she joined the Marines. She withdrew into alcohol and then into more and more serious drugs.
“So I ended up,” Sage said, “from this little 18-year-old kid who just got out of high school, who ran track and did theater club, played drums for the church, to like, a heroine addict.”
Sage ultimately got in deep trouble with the law. She assaulted a man and landed in jail. Ironically, that was when things began to turn around.
“When I was in jail,” she said, “I used to try to do things. I tried to write more, tried to do crossword puzzles. I played cards a lot, like solitaire, and that kind of worked on my coordination skills.”
It also caught the attention of the jail authorities who saw her efforts, and that her violent behavior was connected to the traumas she experienced in Iraq. They gave her a second chance. She was given a lawyer who won her a reprieve, to spend six months at Veterans Village, working on healing herself.
Sage walked through the courtyard at the Village, pointing out the classrooms and the dining room, the ‘chow hall” as she called it.
Her big love is music. She brought her guitar from her room, sat down on a metal bench in the chow hall and started to play. Her fingers on the strings were tentative at first, but her voice was strong and full of emotion. The song was about her struggle with drugs, and her yearning to be free of them. She says she wrote it herself.
After the last chord faded, she talked a little more about her progress. She took classes in cognitive rehab at Veterans’ Village, and counseling at the VA Center to deal with her addictions. She spent time with other, older vets, trying to get a handle on her life again.
“Sometimes it agitates,” she said, describing her changing emotions. “Almost like when you’re cleaning a wound, it burns a bit. Every once in a while, I’ll have a day like that when I just get overwhelmed, you know, but I’m making good progress.”
Sage left Veterans Village soon after this interview. She’s back on her own, like thousands of other veterans, working to overcome the invisible wounds of war.
For more on PTSD, check out the special series on This Emotional Life.