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“Somebody at the VA told me, ‘Kids in Congo and Uganda don’t have PTSD,'” Caleb tells me angrily one day. It’s called traumatic brain injury, or TBI, from multiple concussions.
In two tours, he was in at least 20 explosions—IEDs, vehicle-borne IEDs, RPGs.
And as slippery as all that is, even less understood is the collateral damage, to families, to schools, to society—emotional and fiscal costs borne long after the war is over. Hypervigilance sounds innocuous, but it is in fact exhaustingly distressing, a conditioned response to life-threatening situations. And it is dark outside, and the electricity is out.
Imagine your nervous system spiking, readying you as you feel your way along the walls, the sensitivity of your hearing, the tautness in your muscles, the alertness shooting around inside your skull. Caleb has been home since 2006, way more than enough time for Brannan to catch his symptoms. When a sound erupts—Caleb screaming at Brannan because she’s just woken him up from a nightmare, after making sure she’s at least an arm’s length away in case he wakes up swinging—the ensuing silence seems even denser.
“And it’s not like, ‘Oh, I’m too tired to do the laundry,’ it’s like, ‘Um, I don’t understand how to turn the washing machine on.’ I am looking at a washing machine and a pile of laundry and my brain is literally overwhelmed by trying to figure out how to reconcile them.” She sounds like she might start crying, not because she is, but because that’s how she always sounds, like she’s talking from the top of a clenched throat, tonally shaky and thin.
She looks relaxed for the moment, though, the sun shining through the windows onto her face in this lovely leafy suburb.
When we hear Caleb pulling back in the driveway, we jump up and grab their strings, plunging the living room back into its usual necessary darkness.
When Caleb was finally screened for the severity of his TBI, Brannan says he got the second-worst score in the whole 18-county Gulf Coast VA system, which serves more than 50,000 veterans.
But there’s still a lot about brain damage that doctors, much less civilians, don’t understand.
In one of them, when a mortar or grenade hit just behind him, he was thrown headfirst through a metal gate and into a courtyard.
His buddies dragged him into a corner, where he was in and out of consciousness while the firefight continued, for hours.
She has not, unlike military wives she advises, ever been beat up.