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Fighting Wars at Home: A Veteran’s Perspective and Passion for Change

A close-up of an American flag flowing in the breeze.

Center for BrainHealth

Dangerous. Uneducated. Crazy. Unstable. All are labels that continue to haunt generations of veterans. And all are labels that couldn’t be further from the truth. Yet, here we are, after more than 14 years of our nation’s most recent and longest war and we are also fighting wars at home: the war against stigmata associated with what it means to be a veteran and – an even bigger battle – the war within ourselves. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, post 9-11veterans are seeking care at VA more than ever before. The agency’s data show that from 2002 to 2009, one million troops left active duty in Iraq or Afghanistan and became eligible for VA care. Of those troops, 46% sought VA services and almost half were diagnosed with a mental health condition. Unfortunately, there are many more veterans out there who have not sought care because of the stigmata associated with the defining organ of our humanity – our brain. As a veteran of the United States Marine Corps diagnosed with both traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I know firsthand why veterans do not seek help. We don’t want to be seen as soft; we don’t want to be treated differently, and we certainly don’t want our families and friends to lose confidence in us. My story may sound familiar to fellow warriors. On my third deployment, in Afghanistan, the back right tire of the truck I was riding in hit an anti-tank mine. I was knocked unconscious by the impact of the blast. While I was eventually able to crawl out of a turret, one of my close friends, Travis, died. As horrible as that experience was, my ordeal was just beginning. I returned home to an environment I no longer understood, with a unique set of experiences that left me feeling isolated. My wartime mindset served me well through three combat deployments; however, I found myself lost and without purpose once I was home. Fortunately, I found what I needed. On Veterans Day 2011, I was introduced to the Center for BrainHealth® at The University of Texas at Dallas, home to scientists on the cutting edge of innovative and transformative brain research. Since then, I have learned a great deal about the brain and how it works. I have learned PTSD changes the chemistry and physiology of the brain as a result of a stressful event or events. PTSD is not self-inflicted. TBI is a common consequence of car accidents and most often, falls. Cognitive deficits and behavioral issues often emerge after such an injury. These changes in the brain are not permanent. The brain is in fact, constantly changing and creating new connections, every day and through every experience. We can improve our brain performance. With or without diagnoses, we can all be better than we were yesterday. Two programs designed by Center for BrainHealth scientists equipped me with the tools to change my life. The first addressed my PTSD by combining two treatments and challenge my previous beliefs, ultimately helping to re-train my brain’s response to fearful situations. Since participating in the program, my thoughts are no longer jumbled and I feel calmer. It is easier for me to go through daily activities and stressors without anxiety and I have fewer symptoms of depression. The second, the Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Tactics, or SMART™ program, is a cognitive brain training program that helps build the brain’s ability to think strategically, reason, and solve problems, even after sustaining a TBI. The SMART program has been found effective in improving the brain performance and psychological health of those, including veterans, who have sustained a TBI, even long after the injury. My new purpose in life is to help other veterans, and all individuals no matter their experiences, overcome brain conditions and regain their brain health. There is effective research being done on the brain and there are proven interventions that should be foregrounded by the media and the public at large to enhance our appreciation for the complex organ between our ears. I encourage my fellow veterans, their friends and family members, to find out more by visiting centerforbrainhealth.org.  Know that through persistence, resourcefulness and self-discipline—qualities we developed in the military—we have the ability to change our brains physiologically and psychologically with or without diagnosis of TBI and PTSD. Labels should not limit our brain’s health and do not define our brain’s potential. Mental health conditions are not signs of weakness and do not last a lifetime; they are treatable and can be overcome. That’s why this Veterans Day, I am asking fellow Americans to commit to shattering the stigmata associated with mental health conditions – in veterans and in all individuals. I encourage all to gain a greater understanding of our greatest asset – our brain– and to help reduce the stigma of TBI, PTSD, and the antiquated notion that the brain can’t improve. Beginning a new, more hopeful national conversation around brain health is one of the best ways to honor veterans and patriots today and in the future. Mike Rials is a former sergeant in the United States Marine Corps and member of the Center for BrainHealth’s Brain Performance Institute warrior training team. 

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