Challenge Aspen program helps veterans’ recovery from traumatic brain injuries
Program assists veterans with ongoing recovery from 'invisible injuries'
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To find out how the Challenge Aspen Military Opportunities program assists disable veterans, go to https://challengeaspen.org/military
U.S. Army veteran Brian Turner survived multi-deployments over two decades before he suffered injuries that started the toughest battle of his life.
Turner was one of nine military veterans in Aspen last week for a Challenge Aspen program that assists with ongoing recovery from invisible injuries. He shared his story while fly fishing with his group at the Roaring Fork Club in Basalt.
Turner grew up in a small town in Oklahoma and graduated early in 1991 so he could sign up and join an older brother who was deployed to Iraq.
“Military fit me well,” he said.
He was compelled to keep offering his service to the country.
“Every time I would start to get out of it, war would happen or conflict would happen or 9/11 would happen — something happened that reassured me that my place was where I was at,” he said.
Turner served in Iraq and in Afghanistan multiple times. A deployment for 2010-11 turned out to be his last. His unit was ending a three-day patrol, getting close to their base, when they were ambushed.
“We had mortar fire coming in and daisy chain IED blasts going off, we had sniper fire — we had kind of a combination of everything,” Turner said. “Obviously when you have 2,000-pound (roadside bombs) going off, some damage is going to be done.”
The tendons in both his ankles were destroyed. He had broken ribs, a broken collarbone and arm, herniated disks and compromised joints.
That wasn’t the worst of it.
“There is loss of life. There are other injuries that …” he broke off for a long pause. “There are other injuries that are hard to recover from. The physical injuries you can heal a lot better from.”
The roadside bombs exploded with such force that Turner’s head was ringing. He said he couldn’t hear for four days. He suffered the type of traumatic brain injury that medical research has learned so much about over the course of America’s longest war in Afghanistan.
Turner was medevac’d to the U.S. for what’s been a long, often bumpy road to recovery. While the physical injuries began to heal, the mental injuries were tougher. He was suffering from post-traumatic stress and wasn’t coping well.
“I was very angry. I got arrested for DUI, for assault and battery, for different things. I was drinking a lot,” Turner said.
“What happens when you don’t do anything about it is it can get worse and worse and worse,” he continued. “A lot of times people find people who are in similar situations.
“If you’re not doing anything new for your life and they’re not doing anything new for their life, it’s two people complaining about the same thing in that repetitive cycle.
“If I was going to stay in that, I was going to be dead or in prison forever because I was going to kill myself or somebody else.”
He was mad at the military, mad at the government and mad at the civilians he encountered because of their petty problems and things they complained about. They wanted bigger homes, tickets for a weekend concert, their sea bass cooked properly.
Turner, now 44, wanted relief from the mental pain.
A lot of things he encountered were a “trigger” for emotions. Like a lot of veterans, he responded by isolating himself.
Fortunately, Turner said, he was surrounded by friends and family who would not give up on him. At their urging he sought treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
One important part of recovery is getting out of the house, avoiding the isolation, igniting the mind, body and spirit. That’s where Challenge Aspen comes in.
The Challenge Aspen Military Opportunities program brings veterans with disabilities to the Roaring Fork Valley for a variety of activities, most visibly skiing and fly fishing. There also are special programs for female veterans facing PTSD as a direct result of sexual assault while in the military.
There are 20 Challenge Aspen Military Opportunities retreats per year, where full expenses are paid for roughly 250 veterans, program director John Klonowski said.
The key theory of all retreats is to use the Roaring Fork Valley’s beauty of the outdoors to break down barriers.
“We’ve got to have nature as a co-therapist,” Klonowski said.
Turner first came to Aspen in winter 2015 when a squad leader in his Warrior Transition Unit realized Turner needed to get out of his surroundings in San Antonio. The program helped him achieve things he didn’t think he could do. He’s afraid of heights but found himself riding the chairlifts. He absorbed beauty beyond what he imagined from the mountaintops.
He was back in the valley this weekend after Klonowski emailed and invited him to a fly-fishing outing. He and eight veterans visited the Roaring Fork Club with Aspen Trout Guides on Thursday. They headed up the Fryingpan River on Friday and visited the lower Roaring Fork on Saturday.
Challenge Aspen Military Opportunities and other treatment Turner receives have put him in a better place than he’s been most of his adult life, Turner said.
“They start pointing out little things that you can do and you don’t realize it,” he said. “You keep putting yourself in a box and saying I can’t do this and I can’t do that. But you can. You have to go do it.”
For Josh Johnson, the Challenge Aspen Military Opportunities program has helped get him back into the mountains he’s known and loved as a Colorado native.
Johnson, 37, has a confident, can-do demeanor ingrained in many natives of the rural West Slope. He grew up in Olathe with a history of military service in his family. His grandpa and dad were combat engineers.
Johnson enlisted in the U.S. Army Airborne in 2000.
“I signed up to jump out of planes and blow stuff up,” he said with a grin. He was promoted to sergeant quickly and in charge of a squad of nine guys when deployed to Iraq in an armored cavalry regiment in 2003.
“I took nine guys over. I brought all nine guys back,” he said. “But here recently, due to PTSD and a bunch of other stuff they were dealing with, we’ve had quite a few suicides from my squad.”
Losing his colleagues has been rough. The most recent was three weeks ago, when a former soldier who experienced ongoing pain killed himself in the parking lot of a Veterans’ Administration facility in Tennessee.
“I didn’t leave the house for a week,” Johnson said. “Everything sort of sets you off. A lot of us will dwell on that. Two years ago I just would have dwelled on it.
“Instead, I got on the phone and I called a couple of my old soldiers up and we got together and kinda worked it out.”
He’s learned to cope.
Like Turner, Johnson found it easier to deal with the physical injuries he suffered in combat than with the invisible injuries. Johnson, still a powerful-looking guy, said he was carrying an Iraqi captive in 2003 when he encountered fire after rounding a corner. He threw the captive and dislocated both shoulders in the process. He popped his shoulders back in and returned fire.
He finished his deployment although the Army wanted to send him home.
“I had trained my men. I had given up a lot just to go to war,” he said. “I wasn’t going to leave them, so I stayed, and when I got back home they did two surgeries right away to repair my shoulders.”
Meanwhile, Army doctors also discovered he had two blown eardrums and had suffered an unknown number of concussions and traumatic brain injuries.
“They wanted to check my brain out a little bit,” Johnson said. “They diagnosed me with PTSD and (traumatic brain injury) and a couple of other things.”
He recovered in Fort Carson, retired from the military in 2005 and tried to return to a normal life on the West Slope.
It was a struggle.
A lot of vets suffer from mental pain, he said. They don’t understand it, so they try to replace it with other kinds of pain.
“Mental health, that’s hard for guys like me, the way I grew up,” he said. “You don’t have that. You’re a man. Man up. So any other pain feels better than what you’re dealing with.
“Sometimes they go too far. Sometimes they’re just done with it.”
Johnson said he eventually had a breakdown and ended up in a PTSD clinic in Denver. The care there plus care via a private physician through the VA’s Choice Program has helped immensely, he said.
In Montrose, where he lives now, he met veteran Frank Anderson, a blacksmith who is heavily involved in helping veterans get the care they need and deserve. Anderson told him about Challenge Aspen’s blacksmithing clinics in Carbondale, an activity he embraced. Klonowski invited Johnson back to the Roaring Fork Valley for this week’s fly-fishing retreat. He’s also getting out through other programs for vets.
“The big thing is a lot of us bunker up because we feel safe,” Johnson said. “We don’t want to leave where we’re at.”
But programs such as Challenge Aspen’s help break the bunker mentality.
“The minute you get around a lot of these old vets, things start coming back, these old feelings, old ways of living at the time,” Johnson said. “You feel important again. You don’t feel broken. You feel like one of the guys again. The more you do it, the easier it gets to leave your house.”
His experiences have dispelled the notion that civilians don’t understand or care what veterans are going through, he said. He’s found an overwhelming amount of support. He credited Klonowski for being very conscientious about what is going on with veterans.
Johnson said the high suicide rate among veterans will only be reduced with greater efforts to understand their problems and more of an effort by veterans to seek assistance. He credited the VA with adopting a policy that anyone suffering from mental issues will be seen immediately.
His advice for veterans concerned about their mental health: “Man up by asking for help.”
Nearly three years after Aspen City Council cleared the founder of Jazz Aspen Snowmass to launch a jazz performance and education center downtown, Jim Horowitz said he expects the project will get rolling before the year is over.
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