A Wounded Soldier Struggles to Adapt Many of the men and women who returned from Iraq with traumatic brain injuries may never fully recover. As part of our Span of War series, we continue our story of one soldier's attempt to grasp his new limitations and ultimately head home to his wife and family in West Virginia.
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A Wounded Soldier Struggles to Adapt

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A Wounded Soldier Struggles to Adapt

A Wounded Soldier Struggles to Adapt

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

This week we've been following one soldier's struggle to recover a traumatic wound suffered in Iraq. He's a victim of a brain injury, and now he's learning to adapt to his new limitations and ultimately head home to his wife and family in West Virginia. We're following his story as we examine the war's impact at home in our Span of War series. Here's NPR's Joseph Shapiro.


In this hospital laundry room, three big blue washing machines rock, spin and hum.

(Soundbite of washing machines)

SHAPIRO: Each machine's about the size of a bank vault and filled with the beige sheets and pillow cases stripped off patients' beds. Mixed in are bright blue doctors' scrubs, 2,000 pounds of laundry every day. Steve Cobb stands at a row of deep white plastic bins filled with brown blankets. His job now is to fold each one.

Sergeant STEVE COBB (Brain Injury Patient): For some reason, it's not coming out right.

SHAPIRO: He's having trouble.

Sgt. COBB: You'd think I'd remember, as many as I've done.

SHAPIRO: He can't get the edges to line up.

Sgt. COBB: They showed me a certain way. Well, they just showed me once. Usually I've got to be shown something two or three times, sometimes four or five. I try.

SHAPIRO: Steve Cobb is a sergeant in the West Virginia Army National Guard. He's 46 with a weary face, but clear blue eyes. Last year on a night patrol along the Iran-Iraq border, the truck Cobb was driving tried to stop another truck suspected of running weapons. Cobb crashed into a crater in the road, eight feet deep. He smashed his head. Now he's trying to cope with a traumatic brain injury. What was once easy is now a struggle, like remembering the right way to fold these blankets.

Sgt. COBB: That one didn't turn out just right.

SHAPIRO: Cobb spent three months at a brain injury treatment center nearby this hospital in Charlottesville, Virginia. Back home, there might be a job for him at another hospital.

Sgt. COBB: I applied for a housekeeping job, and they called me.

SHAPIRO: When that phone call came, Cobb wasn't ready to work. He was in a military rehab center, so he keeps the message on the memory in his cell phone, a call with a contact number and the faint promise of a job.

Sgt. COBB: Well, it'd be a good job to have, good pay, and it's--be something I could probably do.

SHAPIRO: Which is why Cobb volunteered to work in the laundry room at this hospital, to learn how to do that job. Before he went to Iraq, Steve Cobb worked at a factory making bumpers for Mercedes-Benz SUVs. He operated the huge sheet metal presses. Natalie Cobb is Steve's wife.

Mrs. NATALIE COBB (Steve Cobb's Wife): He knew exactly what he was doing and how to do it, and they wanted him.

SHAPIRO: Cobb was so skilled that Mercedes-Benz flew him every two weeks from West Virginia to its big plant in Alabama, so he could teach the other workers.

Mrs. COBB: And then when a new guy would come, they would say, `Train him. Send him over to Cobb. Let Cobb train him.'

SHAPIRO: After his brain injury, Cobb knew he could never go back.

Sgt. COBB: Myself, I was terrified when I first thought that I'm going to have to go back, because, I mean, some of the presses there, you're talking thousands of pounds per square inch.

SHAPIRO: It wasn't simply that he could no longer do the job. He was afraid he'd hurt himself.

Sgt. COBB: One mess-up, and it just takes once, you know. You fall in one of them presses, and it's over with. Let me see, one guy got his arm tore off. It's almost like you taking a toothpick and just breaking it.

SHAPIRO: Natalie Cobb is helping her husband learn to cope with the brain injury he got in Iraq.

Mrs. COBB: He's not the same man that he was when he left. He's not the man that I married when he left. He came back, but the man I married didn't. And I don't know where that man is, but I'm learning this new man.

SHAPIRO: For Steve Cobb, it's like everything slowed down. It takes longer to figure things out. His speech is slurred. His vision is blurred. His balance is off. He's also been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

Sgt. COBB: I've still got some hate and stuff in me. The way I felt, I was mad at the world.

SHAPIRO: Cobb spent three months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Sometimes he resented the attention given the amputees there, because they'd become the symbol of what an injured soldier's supposed to look like.

Sgt. COBB: There's just as much or more wrong with me than there is him. They can put prosthetics on him. He's fixed. What can they do for me? You can't put prosthetics in my brain. I'm not fixed.

SHAPIRO: Another result of Cobb's head injury, he has a harder time keeping his emotions under control. He blurts out what he's thinking or flashes his anger. Late one night driving his pickup truck on a road in Maryland, not far from Walter Reed, he and Natalie came to an intersection where he usually turned left. Now there was a `no left turn' sign. Confused, he stopped and tried to figure out what to do. A policeman walked up.

Mrs. COBB: The cop, he shines the flashlight right in at Steve, and he's screaming, `Can you not read, stupid?' and he got irate.

Sgt. COBB: And I looked at my wife and I said, `This guy just called me stupid.'

SHAPIRO: Cobb let out the clutch on the truck. He yelled at the cop.

Sgt. COBB: Well, I said, `I'll show you stupid,' because I'm not stupid. It just takes me longer to comprehend.

Mrs. COBB: He wanted to get out of the car then, and I told him, `No, it's not worth it. You're not going to jail. I don't have the money to get you out of jail. Just let it ride.' I said, `He's the stupid one.'

SHAPIRO: Natalie calmed down her husband and the couple drove on. At Virginia NeuroCare here in Charlottesville, Cobb's getting therapy to improve his speech and his brain function. He's learning strategies to jog his memory and control his anger.

Sgt. COBB: I bite my tongue so many times. I--they've taught me to really walk off, and it's a hard thing for me to do, but I'm learning that.

SHAPIRO: Natalie and Steve Cobb see big improvement. For one thing, Steve's laughing and joking again.

Sgt. COBB: I wasn't a cut-up when I first come, was I? But now I'm hardly ever serious. I mean, to joke about things, it makes me forget.

SHAPIRO: Natalie Cobb says that's important because it was her husband's sense of humor that made her fall in love with him, and she says there's a surprise benefit to a husband who now has trouble hiding emotion. She used to tease him that he wasn't romantic, especially when they'd drive down Interstate 81 near their home in Cross Lanes, West Virginia, and pass the wildflowers by the side of the road.

Mrs. COBB: If you would just go pick me a bouquet of flowers on the side of the road, I would be so thrilled. I've been telling him that for years, and we'd drive by, and I was like, `There's my flowers.' I love black-eyed Susans, and my kids would send him black-eyed Susans, and he'd just keep on going by. And I'd say, `Oh, look, the daisies.' He'd go on by.

SHAPIRO: Recently, they were driving down that highway. Steve Cobb stopped the truck.

Mrs. COBB: He pulled over and he went and picked me a bouquet of them flowers, and these cars were going by, blowing their horns at him, and he was still picking the flowers--daisies, black-eyed Susans. My favorite color's purple, so he had the purple flowers in there, too, with them, and he's like, `Don't tell me I don't love you,' and he brought them to me to the truck. He's becoming romantic. After 20 years of marriage, the fire's still there.

(Soundbite of washing machine)

SHAPIRO: Back at the hospital laundry room, it's the end of Cobb's shift. John DaVanzo, a therapist with Virginia Neurocare, checks on how things went.

Mr. JOHN DaVANZO (Virginia Neurocare): Steve, do you feel like you're fast enough?

Sgt. COBB: Well, I've watched some other women here. No, I'm not as fast as them, but, you know, I just keep trying.

Mr. DaVANZO: If you had to get very productive, you could have a list maybe of things that you might forget, have that up on the wall, and say, `OK, this is the procedure for doing that. OK, I can refer to it.' That'll make you a little bit faster.

Sgt. COBB: I never thought of that.

SHAPIRO: It's been a struggle, but Steve Cobb is learning how to live with a head injury, to know what he can no longer do, what he can still do and what he can accomplish with a little assistance. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

INSKEEP: That's one of many stories we're covering about the effect of the war at home in our series the Span of War. And you can find other stories in that series at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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