Veterans’ stories: Traumatic brain injury in the classroom

Samara Freemark
Reporter
Public Insight Network

The scars Sgt. Andrew Napier brought back from Afghanistan are mostly invisible, but they’re still with him — and might be for life.

In 2008, Napier was a National Guardsman and college student studying medicine. But after a semester spent buried under a stack of textbooks, he decided he’d rather be learning in the field. So he signed up for an overseas deployment and two months later found himself in Afghanistan, working as a combat medic and running convoy missions.

Andrew Napier stands in front of a supply truck that was ambushed during a convoy in Paktika Province, Afghanistan in September 2008. Napier served as a combat medic in Afghanistan from 2008-09 and is currently applying to medical school in the United States. (Photo shared by Andrew Napier)

Andrew Napier stands in front of a supply truck that was ambushed during a convoy in Paktika Province, Afghanistan, in September 2008. Napier served as a combat medic in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2009 and is now applying to medical school in the United States. (Photo shared by Andrew Napier)

His deployment was literally a trial by fire. He survived his first ambush just three days after he arrived in the country: 27 minutes of mortars thudding down, rocket-propelled grenades streaking smoke trails across the sky, AK-47s firing “like popcorn,” he says. The next day, a wounded Guard unit was brought into Napier’s clinic. “The gunner had been ejected from the vehicle. Someone had lost a leg. One guy was dead. They brought all them in.” A senior officer showed him how to clean the body of the soldier who was killed.

But it’s an incident two months into his deployment that still haunts Napier.

He had been riding in a heavily armored vehicle, designed to withstand improvised explosive devices and land mines, when an RPG came through the roof and exploded in the seat next to him.

“It knocked me out,” he says. “I have no idea how long I was blacked out. I woke up to someone screaming that we were hit. When I woke up my nose was bleeding, I couldn’t breathe, I was hacking out black stuff, I had migraines. I was a mess.”

Napier was given 10 days off, working desk duty in a resting center. His nose stopped bleeding and his breathing got easier, but the migraines stayed. And he noticed “a big decline in myself mentally. I couldn’t process things, I couldn’t remember things, I had sleep problems. Directions were hard; I would get lost all the time. I had problems with speech and comprehension.”

Napier was a medic: He had been trained to recognize the signs of a traumatic brain injury, or TBI, in his men. Now he was seeing them in himself.

Napier returned home in 2009 and returned to school as soon as he could. He was happy to be back in the classroom, but he was surprised by how challenging he found it. Before he deployed to Afghanistan, he had been earning a 3.9 GPA, with a full course load of advanced classes. The second time around, he was pulling a 3.0, taking remedial math and music appreciation courses as a part-time student. And while, in the past three years, Napier has slowly but surely improved — today, he’s a Tillman Scholar applying to medical school — migraines still bedevil him and he still sometimes struggles with memory and comprehension.

Napier’s not alone. The number of traumatic brain injury diagnoses has increased markedly in the last decade. And TBI can be particularly problematic for student veterans, since, as it did for Andrew Napier, brain injury can impair the cognitive functioning that is crucial to academic achievement.

The Department of Defense reports that more than 250,000 traumatic brain injuries have been diagnosed in military service members since 2000. Along with post-traumatic stress disorder, TBI is one of the signature injuries of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  As we’ve reported, repeated traumatic brain injury can have devastating effects, on both short-term and long-term mental acuity.

As hundreds of thousands of service members leave the military, take advantage of their GI Bill benefits and enter higher education, colleges are starting to grapple with the challenge of how to best care for veterans on campus.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be looking more deeply into how student veterans with TBI are doing in institutions of higher education; what challenges they’re facing there; and what colleges can do to support them.

While we do, w’d like to hear from you. If any of this sounds familiar, please share your story.

 

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Samara Freemark Reporter
Public Insight Network

Reporter/producer Samara Freemark joined the Public Insight Network after four years at Radio Diaries in New York City, where she spent her time helping ordinary people tell their extraordinary stories for NPR. In the process, she developed an unshakeable belief in the beauty and power of personal narrative.

Before Radio Diaries Samara worked as an environmental reporter, a posting that took her to sinking islands, Superfund sites, and literal snakepits – Burmese pythons, to be exact. She also churned out copy and tape in the newsroom of WUOM Ann Arbor. Before settling on a career in radio she tried out policy research, community organizing, and urban planning before deciding she preferred soundwaves to spreadsheets.