Against the Odds, Injured Soldier Returning to Duty Up to 20 percent of soldiers who have fought in Iraq say they sustained a brain injury. Most with a severe brain injury never return to active duty. Army Spc. Freddy Meyers was shot in the head last May and initially could neither talk nor walk. Now he wants to go back to duty.
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Against the Odds, Injured Soldier Returning to Duty

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Against the Odds, Injured Soldier Returning to Duty

Against the Odds, Injured Soldier Returning to Duty

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For a soldier who's lost an arm or a leg in combat, life after an injury is never easy, but there are lots of role models for what's possible. They learn to ski and snowboard, kayak and run marathons with their prosthetic limbs.

You won't find the same kind of role models for another common injury of the Iraq War: traumatic brain injury. NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports from Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: Army Specialist Freddy Meyers sits in the white gazebo next to the lily pond beyond the outpatient barracks at Walter Reed. He's tall, thin and boyish - well, he's only 21.

He's got a winning smile, and he brims with optimism, even on this day, just hours before a meeting that will determine his future in the army.

Specialist FREDDY MEYERS (US Army): Well, it's actually a doctor's appointment, and then he's going to give me advice on what my limitations can - or what I'm allowed to do.

SHAPIRO: Freddy Meyers wants to return to active duty. The doctor will determine if he can. Usually, that isn't even a remote possibility for someone who's had a penetrating head wound. And in May of last year, while on patrol in Iraq, Freddy Meyers was shot in the head.

Spc. MEYERS: I actually have a list of the questions I'm going to ask him in my PDA.

SHAPIRO: He pulls out the PDA from a pocket on the pant leg of his uniform. Meyers still has problems with his short-term memory. To compensate, he's had to learn to be very organized and write down the things he needs to remember, like the questions for the doctor.

Spc. MEYERS: I'm going to ask him about my physical limitations, protective profile, my jump status, my deployability, what the effect of multiple concussions will be, Ranger school, duty restrictions.

SHAPIRO: Meyers was on patrol when a sniper's bullet ripped across the top of his head, pushing fragments of his skull into his brain. When he awoke from a drug-induced coma, Meyers couldn't talk to his wife and parents at his bedside. He couldn't walk.

Now when he takes off his black beret, you can make out a scar in the shape of a horseshoe from the back of his head to his forehead. That's where doctors removed a large piece of his skull to relieve the pressure on his swollen brain.

Meyers figures he can't go back into combat. He's at high risk if he suffers another head injury or just the concussion that's common from being near an exploding IED. But he'd like to get retrained, possibly to work stateside at an Army hospital like this one.

Spc. MEYERS: Well, I'm hoping to get into physical therapy and help out other people who've been injured, not just necessarily brain injuries, but combat injuries is what I'm looking at getting into and helping out.

SHAPIRO: Army Major David Rozelle knows what it means to be a role model. His foot was amputated after a land mine explosion. Rozelle was the first soldier in this war to then go back into combat with a prosthesis. He says there's a lot of pressure on people who are first to make people accept them.

Major DAVID ROZELLE (US Army): What Freddy's going to have to deal with when he goes back and is around his fellow soldiers and he's having to use the PDA or whatever trigger he's going to use to make him remember different stuff, you know, he's going to have to look at his buddies in the eye and say hey, guys. I'm going to be okay. You know, this is just how I do this now. It's adaptation. It's tough.

SHAPIRO: Up to 20 percent of soldiers say they sustained a brain injury in Iraq. That's according to a recent study by the RAND Corporation. The Army doesn't keep track of the ones who return to duty, but traumatic brain injuries are some of the trickiest to treat, and healing is unpredictable.

There's been on soldier, at least, who went back into combat after a penetrating head injury. More common, though, are the ones who want to go back to duty but can't.

Louis French runs head-injury programs at Walter Reed.

Dr. LOUIS FRENCH (Walter Reed Army Medical Center): In some cases, a person's desire may not be enough. And that's a very difficult thing to tell someone, that they are not able to do what they want to do. But we are constantly, I think, trying to balance the reality of the issues related to their injury with their desire.

SHAPIRO: As for Freddy Meyers, he knows he's had a better outcome than most. He still has trouble with short-term memory. He had seizures and he's not cleared yet to drive a car, but while at a rehab facility in Johnstown, Pennsylvania this spring, he put on his uniform and worked five days a week at a National Guard armory.

The job wasn't glamorous. He did clerical work. That's the sort of thing he needed to show he could do to get the okay to go back to duty. Still, he thinks he can be a role model for other soldiers with brain injuries.

Spc. MEYERS: I believe my story's pretty inspiring, and I'm hoping that it will show people how far you can come, because they thought I was a goner, you know.

SHAPIRO: Earlier this month, Meyers did get the go-ahead to return to duty doing support work at his base in Hawaii. He's scheduled to leave Walter Reed tomorrow. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

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