Traumatic Brain Injury A Struggle For Many Arkansas Veterans

Mar 30, 2015

Perry Hopman
Credit Chris Hickey / KUAR News

There are nearly a quarter million veterans living in Arkansas. Thousands of them possibly suffer from traumatic brain injury. 

The majority of diagnosed cases are veterans of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars. The Department of Veterans Affairs knows of about 1,500 cases of in the state since 2007.

Staff Sergeant Perry Hopman of Benton was in a National Guard flight medic unit for several years when he was first deployed to Iraq in 2006.

“Before I went, man, I was ten feet tall and bullet proof. And then reality punches you in the face. And then you come back and reality really punches you in the face,” he said.

Before Hopman went to Iraq the most action he'd seen was as one of the first National Guard units to respond to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. He says he spent time in Iraq rescuing injured troops from the field of battle or IED explosions.

“Everyday I'm at work, I see somebody's worst day,” he said.

When he returned stateside, he began having some of his worst days. Afflicted by depression, anger, sudden fits of rage, sleeplessness, he had the most trouble relating to his own family.

“My daughter, you know she said 'daddy, I'm scared of you sometimes.”

Hopman says he went several years before deciding he needed help, at the urging of everyone around him. But even after that, it wasn't apparent that post-traumatic stress was not his only potential diagnosis. It took a visit to a medical center in Bethesda, Maryland where he says a cat scan revealed spots on his brain.

“That was one of the best days of my life, because up until then, the system was convincing me I was crazy,” he said.

He was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury. Though he says he's still unable to tell if it is TBI affecting him or if it is Post Traumatic Stress. Nicole Hart is the executive director of ARVets.

“[TBI] is connected to concussions, loss of memory. It could be vision delays or problems with your vision. For some people, they have mild [TBI] and then [some] have severe,” she said.

ARVets is an advocacy group which assists vets in navigating the VA and other services. Hart is a former National Guardsman herself having served in Iraq, and says she also suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress. Like Hopman, it has caused her sleeping problems.

"I haven't slept straight through the night...since five years ago," she said.

The effects of Traumatic Brain Injury are not always apparent, Hart notes, and the psychological damage can severely affect a person's family life or job before they decide they need help. Outside of therapy and medications (Hopman takes 22 medications, for various ailments, including TBI), Vets are exploring different ways to cope.

Jordyn Miller runs Paws For Effects based in Sheridan, Arkansas and trains service dogs to help people with mobility issues.

“The greatest demand seems to be for veterans,” she said. “A lot of them come back and don't even know they have PTSD or Traumatic Brain Injury until years after they're out [of the service], they just notice they have a lot of these weird symptoms that they've never had before. And it affects their lives and a lot of them get so depressed that they don't even want to leave the house.”

Miller is one of a handful of service dog trainers in the state.

“And so we find that when we bring these service dogs in, not only does it give them a purpose to get out of bed, because they have to go feed the dog, they have to go walk the dog, but these dogs actually give them a link back into society. They can actually can go out in public and have someone watching their back,” she said.

Miller explains the various commands vets can use to protect them: providing a barrier so people don't get too close and easing the passage through a crowd. She runs a private business and her services aren't covered by Veterans benefits. But Hopman is already feeling the prospect that his own service dog-in-training will be life-changing.

“There's hope, that dog is giving me hope,” he said.

Through the treatments being offered, Hopman is optimistic that other vets may realize if they too have TBI and will find ways to cope.