PTSD and TBI: One Airman's road to recovery
Master Sgt. Jennifer Allara, 436th Civil Engineer Squadron, Explosive Ordinance Disposal team leader, puts on a bomb suit while Staff Sgt. Jared Hess, 436th CES, NCOIC of EOD equipment, assists Feb. 14, 2013, at the EOD building on Dover Air Force Base, Del. Allara has been in the Air Force for 17 years. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Chuck Walker)
by Tech. Sgt. Chuck Walker
436th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
2/25/2013 - DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. (AFNS) -- Traumatic Brain Injury and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder have been two topics of great discussion recently, thanks to the debate going on in the National Football League and the recovery of veterans as they return home from the war in Afghanistan.
One person who has experienced both and is on the road to recovery is Master Sgt. Jennifer Allara, 436th Civil Engineer Squadron, Explosive Ordinance Disposal team leader at Dover Air Force Base, Del.
For Allara, everything started with a fateful event that occurred in Sept. 2009, when her EOD team at Provincial Reconstruction Farah, Afghanistan, was ambushed while out on patrol.
Allara's teammate Staff Sgt. Bryan Berky was killed by a sniper during the attack, during what Allara called 'a wake-up call.'
"We are trained to accept a certain amount of danger with our job," Allara said. "And I always thought in terms of me, what if something happens to me. What if we get blown up. I wasn't thinking in terms of losing a team member in a turret. It was a very big wake-up call."
Allara, who is a native of Seaside, Ore., said upon returning home from deployment she went to mental health, sought therapy and did all the things that you are supposed to do if you experience symptoms. For her, she said it seemed to bring about more questions than it did answers.
According to the National Council on Disability website, PTSD is an anxiety disorder that arises from exposure to a traumatic event that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury. TBI occurs when a sudden trauma causes damage to the brain. TBI can result when the head suddenly and violently hits an object , or when an object pierces the skull and enters the brain tissue. The term "mild TBI" is synonymous with concussion.
PTSD and TBI are often addressed together for two reasons. First, the symptoms may be similar, so it is difficult to distinguish between the two injuries. Second, many people with TBI also have PTSD.
Although PTSD is a biological/psychological injury and TBI is a neurological trauma, the symptoms of the two injuries have some parallel features. In both injuries the symptoms may show up months after someone has returned from war. Overlapping symptoms include sleep disturbances, irritability, physical restlessness, difficulty concentrating, and some memory disturbances.
Concussions have been in the news a lot lately especially as it relates to sports, i.e. the NFL. In the past year, numerous athletes including Robert Griffin III and Michael Vick in the NFL, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in NASCAR have been sidelined with concussion-related injuries.
Lori Leary, the director of Sports Medicine and head trainer at Delaware State University, says that with all of the focus on the subject, the subsequent data that has been collected has been somewhat skewed.
"It is a hot-bed topic," Leary said. "The data says that we are having more concussions than we had in the past. But, with the advancements that we've made in detecting these type of injuries, they are being detected and reported more. In football you have the term 'getting your bell rung.' In the past your coach would tell you to shake it off. Now that is considered a concussion."
Allara said after she started noticing she had short-term memory loss and trouble finding words, that she wanted deeper answers.
Allara leaves Feb. 25 to go to the National Intrepid Center of Excellence. The NICoE is a Department of Defense institute dedicated to providing cutting-edge evaluation, treatment planning, research and education for service members and their families dealing with the complex interactions of mild TBI and psychological conditions.
Allara will be one of 20 people going through the treatment at the NICoE in Bethesda, Md. She will go through four weeks of analysis and will leave with a care plan designed to meet her needs.
Allara said she's excited to get started.
"Knowing what's wrong with me and working with the doctors to combat that, if I know what it is, I can overcome it," Allara said. "I'm looking forward to the holistic approach they take in treatment. That intrigues me. "
Allara said she hopes that her example will help to compel others to seek help if they are experiencing problems when they return from deployment.
"There is no shame in getting help," Allara said. "There is no shame in recognizing what is going on with someone and being able to reach out and help. If you don't take care of yourself, you can't take care of your Airmen."
Allara said if there is one thing she wants other people to recognize is that people should not feel ashamed if they experience or have experienced PTSD.
"PTSD is not what's wrong with you, it's what happened to you," Allara said. "It's a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. I'm looking forward to the holistic approach to their treatment and diagnosis."