NCO makes long journey back from TBI
March 20, 2014
FORT JACKSON, S.C. (March 20, 2014) -- Because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many Americans are somewhat familiar with Traumatic Brain Injury. What may not be common knowledge is that Soldiers with TBI aren't always victims of combat injuries. In the fall of 2012, Sgt. 1st Class Elijah Mack III was leading a ruck march at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., when he was hit by a truck and thrown into the air. He landed partially on his head.
He broke nine ribs, had a collapsed lung, damaged his spleen and both knees, fractured his right hip, had blunt force trauma to his shoulders and "road rash" on his head.
"(The other Soldiers) all thought I was dead," he said. Mack, a 43-year-old chaplain assistant from Brevard, N.C., said before the accident he had been, " ... a straight arrow, by-the-book type of man who met resistance with equal or greater force. I was serious, organized and even tempered. I was more mental than physical."
He always wanted to join the military and follow in his father's and grandfather's footsteps. Although he earned a bachelor's degree in Bible studies, he knew he wanted to be an enlisted Soldier.
He served as the installation chaplain's noncommissioned officer in charge. He had been in the Army 12 years and was scheduled to move to Germany with his family, "when my life changed." Mack was medically evacuated to the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, where he fought for his life from Nov. 26 to Dec. 6, 2012.
"(The other Soldiers) saw me go flying. I have no recollection of it. I was told I went flying into the air, and crashed down into the intersection. It happened across the street from the EMS building, so there was help almost right away," he said. "I remember waking up and hearing helicopter blades. That was a comfort to me because I couldn't remember anything about where I was or why I was there. I didn't understand at all what was happening."
"I found out that morning as I came in," said, Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Jerry Owens, APG installation chaplain and Mack's supervisor at the time. "Everyone was all upset. We were all in shock. We drove to Baltimore to Shock Trauma and met his wife, Liz. She was cracking jokes!"
Owens said Mack's wife dealt with the shock of her husband's injuries with humor. He said Mack's stay at Shock Trauma was rife with emergencies and frightening setbacks.
The Mack family has two children, Micaiah, then 13, and Isaac, then 5.
"(Liz) stayed with him the entire time," Owens said. "I saw him the next day. He was swollen for the first two weeks he was there and there was always a new danger. By week three they said he would live, but they were doing damage assessment. Before that they were just trying to keep him alive."
Once he was out of mortal danger, Mack was transferred to Walter Reed National Medical Center in Washington. It was there that he was diagnosed with moderate Traumatic Brain Injury. And that is where Mack began his long trek back to a new version of a normal life.
THE JOURNEY BACK
"I was injured from head to toe and I couldn't move. I had to learn how to walk ... it was frustrating. I had to relearn how to do the simple things that I had taken for granted before."
At Walter Reed, Mack endured physical therapy in one- to two-hour sessions, five days a week.
"It takes a lot of energy and effort and you're already zapped of energy. (The therapists) want you to keep on pushing. My lungs and ribs were healing, but I wasn't breathing correctly. I wasn't able to take in enough oxygen. I had to practice how to breathe properly," he said.
Because he was so physically compromised, each stride forward seemed like major progress for Mack. One small victory was being able to shave.
"I had grown a goatee. I was like, 'I'm a Soldier. I'm not supposed to look like this!''' he said.
The road to recovery saw Mack following a strict regimen of physical therapy and therapy to restore cognitive skills and tolerance.
The TBI impeded the recovery process, Mack said.
"I wasn't able to comprehend what I used to be able to do. Now I have to break it down step by step and write it down and have people check on me. I had to relearn to drive," he said. "Now, if I have a lot of information, it takes a while to process it. I get frustrated, angry and upset. TBI is for life. I know I've got it, but I won't let it hold me back."
When a Soldier is diagnosed with a moderate TBI, he or she has the option to leave military service. That option is something Owens discussed briefly with Mack.
"He was on convalescent leave for three months. By the fourth month he was back in the office, working half days. By month six he'd started picking up some of his former responsibilities. I remember sitting down with him. We asked him and his family what they wanted. I said, 'We'll be patient,'" Owens said. "Other NCOs, senior and junior, helped Mack. There was always command support. I felt like, 'We can do this.'"
SUPPORT AND RECOVERY
Mack's office environment was a small, tight garrison, Owens said. There were six or seven other chaplain assistants throughout the post.
"They rallied behind me," Mack said. "My in-laws kept my kids at Fort Hood, (Texas). They're still there playing with their cousins. Without family support and daily encouragement it would have been a tough road."
Despite that, life's small challenges have become larger for him, Mack is managing his TBI and was assigned as NCO for the Center for Spiritual Leadership at the Army Chaplain School, an assignment a lesser NCO would not have been chosen for.
"They sent me here because they want me to tell my story," he said.
Because of the Chaplain Corps' Care to the Caregiver, of C2C, initiative, Mack was identified as a model of resiliency.
"It's important for Sgt. 1st Class Mack to tell his story so that others can see that recovery and healing is possible," said Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Daryl Hollowell, deputy director for the Center for Spiritual Leadership and Mack's supervisor.
Mack speaks to NCOs on post about what it's like to live with TBI, making it clear that one can continue to function successfully with the increased challenge.
"TBI is the unseen injury. I choose not to let it stop me," Mack said.