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The war at home

HARRIET HAMILTON
summit daily news
Summit County, CO Colorado
Summit Daily/Eric Drummond
ALL |

FRISCO ” From a distance, the group gathered around a picnic table at the Frisco marina on a recent sunny afternoon looks pretty much like any other young family visiting Summit County to escape the Texas heat.

But while parents Tonya and Rich Watson keep an eye on 8-year-old Dillon and 10-year-old Kaitlin exploring the waterfront, Tonya also remains hyper-vigilant of her husband, whose cane serves as a subtle reminder of the retired soldier’s service in Iraq and the devastation his battlefield experiences have wreaked on his health and his family.

“When he first got back, the nightmares were so bad ” he’d sit up in his sleep, screaming out orders,” Tonya, 29, said. “I’d have to lay completely still in the bed, or he’d hit me.”



His brain left vulnerable by repeated concussions, just a minor bump on the head by a car door last September caused Rich to suffer a stroke.

Since then, Tonya has kept a close eye on her husband.



“We’re on edge all the time,” she said. “It’s a constant cat-and-mouse game to be sure he doesn’t hit his head again.”

In Summit County this week to visit Rich’s mother, Frisco resident Sharon Jones-Bird, Tonya reports her husband’s nightmares have subsided somewhat in the year since he returned from Iraq.

But she fears what the future will hold for her family as they face the day-by-day reality of Rich’s physical and emotional wounds.

Given a variety of battle-related diagnoses by military doctors, including post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and multiple-concussion syndrome,

Rich retired from the army in March and settled in his wife’s hometown of Gun Barrel City, Texas.

Now, getting appropriate treatment for Rich in his fight against the chronic pain and lingering neurological problems has become almost a full-time job for Tonya.

Daily stress has contributed to her high blood pressure, she added, and may have been a precipitating factor in the minor heart attack she had last winter.

Caring for a disabled veteran was not on Tonya’s list of aspirations when she first made contact with Rich in 2004 in an on-line “government and politics” chat room.

After corresponding via the Internet for months while he was in Iraq, Rich offered to fly her from her home in Texas to Washington when his tour was over.

The single mother agreed and, much to her surprise, he proposed to her in the airport within minutes of meeting her.

“I just knew,” he said, remembering their first encounter.

The couple married in May 2005, and family life on Fort Lewis was great for the first year, Tonya remembers.

“Our friends on base were great,” she said. “Their kids were our kids, and our kids were theirs.”

The honeymoon period came to an abrupt halt almost as soon as Rich was sent to Iraq for his second tour in May of 2006.

“From the beginning, something didn’t feel right about this tour,” Tonya said.

As an infantry-squad leader, Rich often found himself in the thick of combat.

On March 27, 2007, three days after his squad had incurred substantial losses in an ambush, a nearby explosion caused his ninth concussion and brought his 10-year career as a soldier to an end.

Although he was unable to stand or hold a rifle and slept as much as 19 hours a day, the Army made no effort to send him home, or even get him a CT scan.

It wasn’t until his mother called U.S. Rep. Mark Udall’s office for help that the brass started to take his condition seriously.

Two days after Jones-Bird’s call, Rich was flown to a military hospital in Germany, and was back in Texas four days later.

Deemed unable to function in combat because of the effects of his injuries, Rich retired from the military on partial disability.

For Tonya, the waiting game was excruciating.

“Everything that came on the news scared me, and I’d start shaking,” she confessed.

Finally, two months after the explosion, she and Kaitlin met him at the Houston airport.

“The first few days were really tough ” with flashbacks, memories, and nightmares,” she said.

Back at Fort Lewis, Rich languished for several months without receiving any organized medical care.

In August, he was transferred finally to the base’s Warrior Transition Battalion, where his recovery became the main focus.

“That was a blessing beyond belief,” Tonya said.

With the help of her husband’s disability income, Tonya recently started classes to become a nurse and has overseen his treatment.

Cognizant of all his wife has done for him since his return, Rich’s voice softened and lost its characteristically flippant tone when he spoke about his future.

“That stroke in September was my first wake-up call,” he said. “I used to think I was invincible. Now I know Tonya needs to be her own person, and not just a widow some day.”

Still, more than a year removed from combat, the war in Iraq continues to haunt the Watson family. When he tried to describe some of his experiences to Tonya, she had to stop him.

“I told him: ‘I love you, but I cannot hear this,'” she said.

While the chronic pain, shattered ankle and injured knee are debilitating, Rich’s emotional and neurological problems present the greatest challenges.

“Every day he has mood swings,” Tonya said. “The nightmares aren’t as bad now, but when they’re around, they’re awful.”

Harriet Hamilton can be reached at (970) 668-4651, or at hhamilton@summitdaily.com.

Of all Rich Watson’s combat-related problems, the traumatic brain injury he sustained from repeated exposures to explosive devices worries his wife the most.

“It’s degenerative,” Tonya said. “He could make it to 40 or to 55 ” there’s not enough research on it. It’s scary.”

Dubbed by experts as the “signature injury” of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, traumatic brain injury ” or “TBI” ” accounts for about one fifth of all battlefield injuries.

These wartime TBIs differ significantly from those suffered by civilians, however.

“Blast is frequently cited as the most common mechanism of injury,” said rehabilitation psychologist Dr. Lisa Brenner, who studies TBI and post traumatic stress disorder among returning soldiers at the Denver Veteran’s Administration Medical Center.

Explosive devices can injure the brain by creating a complex pressure wave not seen in civilian sports injuries or car accidents, she explained.

The dearth of data on explosion-related trauma presents a special challenge to families like the Watsons, said Kenny Hosack, chairman of the Colorado TBI Task Force and spokesman for Denver’s Craig Hospital.

“We don’t frankly know the cumulative effect of multiple blast injuries on the brain,” he said.

Choosing the appropriate treatment is often complicated by the similarity of symptoms associated with TBI and post-traumatic stress. Both disorders can cause fatigue, nightmares, poor concentration, and memory loss.

And because it’s often not obvious to others ” unlike broken bones or gunshot wounds ” those who suffer from TBI can face a host of unique problems

“The world has a hard time understanding it.” Hosack said. “People can feel very alone. That’s why support groups are very important.”


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