US Army veteran, Special Operations Team, Motor Transport Operator
Editor’s note: Eve Morgan* is an Asian Fort Hood veteran who, at the time of her interview, was an NCO in the process of transitioning out of the Army through the Warrior Transition Unit and had recently had brain surgery. She and her husband, also a veteran, offered insights from her experience with care for her TBI.
I decided to join the military to get medical benefits, because I had three kids back then, and also for money for college, which I did get. Then I wound up liking what I was doing, and I re-enlisted…until I got sick.
I was always the type to put myself last. It was always mission first, and myself last. But when I would make appointments and the MTOE for a mission was high, they would always ask me to change my appointment. And if you don’t change it, there’s repercussions, but the kind of repercussion you just don’t see. Where you’re a great NCO and then, all of a sudden, you tell them you can’t change your mission for this. And they say, “Oh okay, well, since you can’t change your mission for this, you’re going to go ahead and grab three soldiers and go dumpster diving for aluminum cans.” They told me to do that, but I couldn’t jump in there, because I’d just had foot surgery.
Before I went into the WTU, it was very hard for me to go in to see a doctor. As an NCO, they always made me mission commander, so I had to go off and do those missions, and I couldn’t always make the appointment that I want to make or keep the appointment that I wanted to keep.
Since I got to the WTU, it’s been wonderful. I have a wonderful Nurse Case Manager, I have a wonderful commander and first sergeant squad leader. I never have to ask for anything, they stay in contact with me pretty much everyday.
I didn’t have a long wait to get in necessarily, but at my old unit, prior to going to WTU, they lost my paperwork for WTU four times. I had my brain surgery April 6th, and I got discharged from the hospital April 12th. Then they put me into a rehabilitation hospital. I had to learn how to walk, I had to learn how to talk and eat again, after my brain surgery. So we submitted the paperwork, the WTU matrix, on April 13th, 2011. I got into the WTU in September of 2011, because my old unit kept missing or losing my paperwork.
The III corps surgeon general had to get involved with my WTU matrix. He did all the legwork, all the paperwork, and everything to get me transferred. And mind you, this was several months before I got in. And then, the ombudsmen got involved with the III corps surgeon general, and he said, “Alright, I’ll do the footwork myself.” He stayed in contact with my husband every single day until the paper was signed, went to the board, and then once it got signed by the board, he called my husband and said, “She’ll get her orders within ten days.” And I got my orders within ten days.
My husband talked to everybody that was important. He knew that would help us. We had to extend my leave after my brain surgery. My company only approved 90 days for me, while my doctor had said I needed 120 days to recover, if not more. They were trying to get me back to work, but I couldn’t even walk. I still can’t walk now, barely. Not without getting dizzy and getting sick, and that’s the whole reason why I’ve been in and out of the hospital since the surgery.
The care that I’ve received off-post is wonderful. The care that I receive on-post was just from my primary care provider, my PA. They don’t know the extent of my brain surgery. They just know, “Okay, she had brain surgery. Her convalescent leave is over, let’s send her back to her unit. She’s fine.” And it doesn’t work that way.
I think part of the problem is that they don’t listen. The PA says, “They said you only need 90 days.” No, my doctor said I need 120 days. “Well, those are all just recommendations. It’s not written in stone.” That’s the kind of attitude I get. And my husband just says, “Are you serious? She’s still in a wheelchair. She’s a truck driver, it’s not like she will benefit you at all if she goes back to work.”
But because I have certain experience, as an NCO, they said, “Well, she can come back up here and do that.” At that time, I still had blurry vision, memory problems, lots of things. I’m still having problems remembering, and I’m still in speech therapy.
When I did go back, when the surgeon general got contacted, he personally called my commander and said, “She is not going back to work.” The surgeon general extended my leave by himself, without my PCM or anything. He personally wrote me a profile to extend me, until I returned back to work September 28th. That’s when my orders came in to go to the WTU.
This all started when I came back from deployment, and started complaining about headaches. I’m an easy-going person, if I get a headache I’m gonna pop a Tylenol or two, or a Motrin, and I’m fine, let’s get back to work. But then it got to the point where I was getting migraines, and I was actually throwing up. And while I was in the truck, as my soldier was driving, I was seeing double. So I made an appointment to go see the doctor, and the doctor just tells me, “Hey, you know what, you’re dehydrated, drink some water. Here’s a bottle of Motrin. Carry on.”
That went on for six months. And then, I found out I had the TBI, because through our PDHRA we had to get screened for TBI. I told them I had headaches, so they referred me to Dr. Thompkins for my headaches. He started treating me for minor TBI, gave me medication. But by the time I got to see him, I was already so depressed, and I had really bad anxiety. Everything that I’d see on the side of the road was a threat to me. It just got really bad. My dreams were very vivid, about guns and my family and stuff like that.
But back to how it got discovered. That was when, in October of 2010, my eyes were getting red and irritated, and all bloodshot. And my first sergeant said, “What’s wrong with your eyes?” I said, “I don’t know, first sergeant.” He said, “Does it itch?” I said, “No, first sergeant.” He said, “Then it must not be pink eye. It’s probably something else, you’re probably irritated or have allergies. But I don’t care,” he said, “You’re going to sick call.”
Sick call treated me for pink eye. And then after a week and a half of being treated for pink eye, it still didn’t go away. That weekend we happened to have a four-day weekend. On Sunday, my blinds were closed in my room, and my room was dark anyways, but even just the light coming through the blinds was killing me. It felt like it was literally burning my eyes. I had taken four washcloths, folded them in half, and covered my eyes with them. And out of the corner of them, I could still see light, and it was killing me. So my husband took me to the emergency room at Darnall. The emergency room told me that I had iritis, not pink eye. And then they checked the pressure in my eyes, and they realized I had a lot of pressure in the back of my eyes. That’s when they decided to do a CAT scan.
From the CAT scan, they saw a blockage in my brain, where my brain stem had fallen into my C1 and gotten stuck. That was blocking the spinal fluid from traveling into my brain and back down. So I was pretty much stroking my spinal cord out. And then, a month leading up to my surgery, I was actually walking around like I’d had a stroke. Everything was sagging on my right side. My arms turned in, my legs turned in.
When I had seen the TBI specialist before that, they didn’t schedule a CAT scan or anything. He just thought I had a minor TBI, and it could be treated with just medication. But going back, once he saw the CAT scan images, he said, “We’re going to send you to a spinal cord specialist to have spinal cord surgery.” And we don’t have a spinal cord specialist on post, so he had to send me all the way to Austin. We went there for the appointment, and the spinal cord specialist said, “I’m not worried about your spinal cord. What I’m worried about is your brain, the way it’s sitting. You’re going to need brain surgery, so I’m going to refer you to a brain surgeon.” So he referred me to the brain surgeon, and then it took three, four weeks for Tracker to approve my brain surgery. So here I am sitting in pain.
I was on leave at the time. Dr. Thompkins had written my profile before he found out that I needed brain surgery. But he knew I needed to take it easy, so he gave me a profile from nine to five, and no driving, not even my personal vehicle. And he gave me medication for pain. And I was taking a lot of other medication, because I started getting really depressed, and I was taking medication for anxiety. But my supervisors were upset about that, and my platoon sergeant told me that my profile was BS. He told me, if my doctor can account for me at 6:30pm, then I can stay out until 9pm. But if my doctor can’t call him and say that he’s accounted for me at 6:30pm, then I can’t be out.
And that happened to be the day that I needed to go see my brain surgeon. I had an appointment with him at 9:00am. They called me in at 5:45am to come in for 6am formation. I told them I had a nine to five profile. Now, I can understand if it was a different soldier, but I’m the kind of soldier where you have to make to go to sick call. I’m the kind of soldier where you have to tell me, “Hey, you know, Sarge Morgan, stop, there’s still tomorrow.” I’m the kind of soldier where when I want to get things done, I want to get things done. And I’m not just gonna tell my soldiers to get it done by themselves, and not watch over to make sure things are done right. I’m hands-on with my soldiers. I feel like they treated me bad after they found out that I had a nine to five profile. They weren’t happy with it.
So, that morning we went to go see my brain surgeon, and I told my husband what my platoon sergeant had said, that my profile was BS. My husband is a pretty calm guy. He said, “Let’s go see what this brain surgeon says. But I’m going to come back and talk to your platoon sergeant myself.” He’s prior service, he was an NCO. He knows how it works. We went to the brain surgeon, and he only saw me one time. All he needed was to see me once and look at the image once. He set a date for my surgery. Originally, it was late November. But TriCare didn’t come back in time, so they had to re-submit my referral to get permission to operate.
So I was working all the way up to when I was referred to have brain surgery. And that day my platoon sergeant told me that my profile was BS, that morning when I saw the brain surgeon, he said, “Oh my god, you need to have brain surgery. And you need to have it fast, because you’re pretty much stroking your right side out.” I was walking weird, talking weird, I had lost a lot of range of motion on my right side. So he said, “We’ll set a date up for your surgery as soon as possible.”
That appointment was a month before my surgery. We came back from the doctor’s office, and my husband took me straight to the office at work. We walked into the room together, and luckily my platoon sergeant, my platoon leader, my first sergeant, my commander, and my XO were all there. They knew not to talk to me, because I was already crying. I was crying when they told me that I needed to have brain surgery. My husband knew where the first line’s office was, and he walked into the first sergeant’s office and said,
“I need to see you, you, you, and you… You all need to come into this office, we need to talk.” And then he said, “I’ll tell you what, my wife will take leave, 30 days leave. And if she has to take more until her brain surgery date, she will. I’m not debating with you, I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. And if I have to go further up to do this, or write Congress or whoever, I will. And the fact that you said that my wife’s profile was bullshit is wrong. The fact that you treated my wife like she was the best NCO, and now that she needs your support, you treat her like a shitbag, is wrong.”
That’s exactly what my husband said.
“When everything was good, you could count on her morning, noon, or night. You got her in a platoon sergeant’s slot as an E-5, you got her doing an E-7’s job. And she was good to you. She was awesome. Now that she’s hurt, she needs your help, and all of a sudden you’re treating her like just another soldier that’s riding their profile.”
I’ve never ever had a profile before that, never. I had been home from Afghanistan from October 2010 to December 2011 when the surgery happened, so I was dealing with these issues for almost a year before they were taken seriously.
The first time you deploy and the first time you come back, you get screened within the first two weeks of getting home. So no soldier is going to know if they’ve got any of these symptoms yet. I didn’t experience my issues until after my first deployment and into my second deployment, when realized that I had chronic PTSD. Because I’m not a short tempered person, it takes me a whole lot to get me upset. But then, I was going off on lieutenants, going off on E-7’s, on an E-6, even going off on soldiers, and that’s not my character. That’s not me.
And I was having nightmares that keep me up all night. I’m to the point where I get afraid to go to sleep. My husband can tell you, I won’t sleep for 32 to 42 hours, because I’m afraid to go to sleep. And I was afraid to tell anyone that I had PTSD, until I got to see my PA, and I told him what was going on.
At SRP, they just ask you the common questions. They don’t ask you, “Do you have nightmares? Do you have this?” They ask, “How are you doing? How’s your family? How’s this and how’s that?” So if you don’t want them to know your business, you don’t say anything.
After my second deployment, they asked me why it was affecting me now. To be honest with you, my second deployment didn’t affect me as much as my first deployment. Everything that I remembered from my first deployment caught up with me on my second deployment.
I had never gotten any briefings on PTSD. Not until I was diagnosed with it.
At first I was afraid to tell them that I had nightmares, and that I was going off on my husband, going off on the kids, because I didn’t want to be labeled as a nutcase, or weak. Because I’ve seen it all. I’ve heard it all. “Oh, she’s claiming she has this,” or, “He’s claiming he has this.” Even though I’m in a truck driver company, I didn’t get to see a whole lot my second deployment. But my first deployment, I did. And all of that comes back to me. Everything that happened the second time, even though it wasn’t as bad, it just brings me flashbacks of the first time. And in my sleep, my nightmares have to do with getting my kids out of the house, where my house is sitting in the middle of nowhere, like it’s in Afghanistan, and I know the bad guys are coming, but I can’t run there fast enough. Things like that.
I never received a briefing about TBI. I never took a pre-screening for TBI before I deployed. I did go through explosions on deployment. I never received any screening afterward. I have symptoms of TBI.
I wouldn’t say it’s the TBI that’s bothering me now, it’s the surgery that’s bothering me. But before that, it was the headaches, the migraines, and I couldn’t stop throwing up when I had migraines.
A few other soldiers I know have been affected by TBI and not been tested, but they’re not doing anything about it. If you try to tell them to go see somebody, they say, “No sergeant, I ain’t weak.” And that’s what I said before, too.
With me being hurt so much, always in pain, I was really depressed. I was really depressed and stressed out. Dr. Thompkins knew that I was depressed. I told him. He wrote me a prescription, for my depression. Prior to us knowing that I needed brain surgery, he wrote me a profile for depression and insomnia, because I couldn’t sleep. And that’s when they started really treating me like I was a shitbag. I couldn’t drive trucks anymore, so I was no longer good. I was on every shitty detail you can think of.
Against my profile, I was pressured to go on mission—not necessarily to drive a truck, but to go on the mission. And what good am I, if I’m a truck commander, and say something happens to my soldier, he doesn’t feel good. What am I supposed to do then, jump into the driver seat and just drive? With me taking the medications that I’m taking? But that’s their way of doing it. They say, “Oh, you’re just a TC. We just need this mission done, it’s only going to be two hours. If not, everybody’s going to be staying late tonight.” So I don’t want to be the one who says no, because then people are going to say, “Oh, you’re the reason why we’re staying late, because all we needed was one body to finish the mission.”
I wouldn’t say that my commanders don’t care that there’s policy against violating profiles. I would say that there are so many soldiers that rode their profiles, that it makes it as if one profile is no different than the other. That’s how they treat it. But asking us or telling us to violate our profile, I think that’s wrong.
The Primary Care Manager, my PA, gave me my profiles. They were issued for every six months, until they put me on permanent. I was never re-evaluated before the temporary profiles expired. When they expired, I had to go back to sick call, tell them the same story, and then they made me wait to go see Dr. Thompkins, to write my profile due to the medication he was giving me.
Some soldiers get turned down from sick call. And they are not supposed to get turned down. Say if it’s time for them to renew their profile, and they can’t get in to see their primary care provider. If my profile ends in a week, I know to make an appointment in a week to see my primary care provider, to update my profile. But because there are so many soldiers, you’re not going to be able to see your primary care provider in one week. So the next thing to do is to go to sick call, and hopefully get in, so you can extend your profile. But you need to wait to see your primary care provider to get into sick call, so in the meantime, whatever condition that you have, whatever issues you have, because you don’t have a profile to support that, they make you do what you’re supposed to do, like PT.
So if you don’t do PT, because you’re telling them, “Hey sergeant, my ankle is still swollen or my foot is still swollen, and I can’t get in to see my primary care provider,” he’s going to yell, “That’s not my problem, where’s your profile?” And then you get counseling for being disrespectful to a non-commissioned officer.
As an NCO, I have been asked if I thought that a soldier’s profile was legitimate. And I said I’m not here to determine that. If a soldier has a profile, they have a profile. And I’m not going to ask them to break their profile.
But if you’re on profile, people frown on you. They treat you like shit. For example, if you’re on profile and you can’t do your mission or your job, instead you are cleaning toilets, you’re going around to everybody’s office picking up trash. You’re going around the motor pool, just doing unnecessary work. Every platoon has a team everyday that’s going to clean this area, and the other platoon, that area. Soldiers clean up after ourselves. And the soldier who’s on profile that cannot lift more than 10 pounds or five pounds, then here he is having to lift a mop bucket to mop the division’s whole hallway. Just because he can’t go on mission. And then he doesn’t get to go to lunch, because he’s on profile. He’s going to sit and wait by the phone, until everybody has lunch, and then he goes to lunch. It makes sense, but leave somebody with him. Why make them stay there by themselves?
I had always been a support to my soldiers. I still have soldiers calling me. I’m not even in the unit. They ask me, “Sarge, can you help me write counseling?” Or, “Hey Sarge, can you help me do this?”