Sean Carrier is an Army veteran. He's 44 years old, and while serving in Iraq he survived seven IED blasts.
"And then I was in a hard landing in a C-130."
Translation: He was in a plane crash. He was medically discharged about a decade ago and Carrier says adjusting to civilian life was difficult, in part because of his headaches. Bad headaches. And memory problems. His short-term memory wasn't working like it used to before the blasts.
"Didn't even know what TBI was," he says. "It was called post-concussion syndrome back then."
TBI, or Traumatic Brain Injury. He got the diagnosis long after those IED explosions, and the lingering damage made working difficult.
His relationship suffered. He and his wife divorced. Carrier's retired now. His beard has streaks of gray. He's got blue eyes and he wears black Harley-Davidson branded clothes. He still goes to lots of doctors appointments, attends group therapy sessions, and now he is participating in a production of a play written by Kate Wenner called "Make Sure It's Me."
It's part theater and part dialogue with the audience about what it means to have a traumatic brain injury. Here, Carrier reads a monologue based on another veteran's true story.
"One afternoon our Internet was running slow. I didn't know what had happened. I lost it. Started kicking everything. Even our little mascot dog. I wanted to kill the little dog, if my guys hadn't made me stop."
Leslie Pasternack is director of this production of "Make Sure It's Me," which is going to be performed Friday at 1 p.m. at the Manchester VA. NHPR's Peter Biello intervied her about the play.
(A partial transcript of this broadcast story follows here.)
"The scenes all focus on veterans talking about the experience of being near an IED explosion and how blast concussion, in particular, feels, how it is going to affect their life."
"There's also a scene in which they discuss their future plans in which they discuss why they join the military in the first place. And there are a couple scenes in which a veteran or a military family member is speaking with a doctor and one beautiful scene where two wives are talking together. So you don't have to bring a whole huge amount of acting experience to this - just your open heart. The readings by veterans themselves have been extraordinarily moving. And the talk-backs are the most important part. The reading serves as the beginning of a discussion with the audience and with the veterans who participate."
What do the veterans who participate, who are playing a role in this, get out of the experience?
"So the experience of having one rehearsal and then getting up and reading and being able to work on their reading skills and their public speaking in a low stress environment, where they know that we want them to succeed and in anything they do is marvelous -- that experience is very confidence building. Some of the veterans they are playing a character. They're reading Kate Wenner's words but in the talk-back I'll ask them, 'Did this ring true for you?' And it will sometimes be a catalyst for them to talk about their own stories. At the Vet Center, I've been fortunate enough to have folks in the audience come up to me and say, 'I saw your presentation last year. And so I went to the VA. I got diagnosed with TBI and now I'm getting better.' So this presentation really serves as an opportunity for veterans to begin exploring their own stories, to reframe their own symptoms or experiences, maybe in a different way, and to understand that life may be different after a traumatic brain injury, but that it doesn't have to stop or even be diminished."
How important is a general education about TBI for the general population?
"I think it's extremely important. One of the big lessons that I learned myself personally and I remind myself all the time is: you never know when you're moving through the world what's going on with another person why they're having certain experience. And one of the things we're learning about sports and vehicular concussions as well as military aligned concussions is that you can have really, really small hits that affect you in ways that you don't recognize as being concussion.
They can accumulate and they can manifest in symptoms that look like something else. You can seem cranky, you can suddenly be driving faster, you can have difficulty concentrating. And what many people do, and mostly veterans do this a lot because they want to succeed. They want to do well. They start to blame themselves and feel less than they were because of these symptoms. And many folks upon discovering that they have a mild or a moderate TBI feel just a huge sense of relief -- that they understand it's not their fault. It's not a moral failing. And suddenly the caregivers or family members or friends around them have a light bulb go on as well. Oh this is why my son or my nephew or my student or my daughter has been so different in some way I can't understand in coming back. So it helps all of us move forward in terms of knowing how to treat and respond to TBIs. But also I think in just having more compassion and more patience with ourselves and with people around us."
(Leslie Pasternack is the director of tomorrow's production of "Make Sure It's Me" at the Manchester VA. It starts at 1 p.m.)