Tag Archives: Traumatic Brain Injury

Warrior Games 2013: Airman faces challenge at Games as TBI victim

Capt. Mitchell Kieffer gears up for a bike ride during the Wounded Warrior Games training camp.by Tech. Sgt. Mareshah Haynes
Air Force News Service, Colorado Springs, Colo.

By looking at him, you would never be able to tell he is a battle-tested, combat-injured Airman. He is a testament to invisible wounds and just how their effects can become visible in everyday life.

Capt. Mitchell Kieffer is a mathematician at heart and an operations research analyst at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va. The three-time Air Force triathlete and personal trainer was stationed at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., working at the Air Force Research Laboratory there when he got the opportunity he had been waiting for — a deployment.

He had volunteered to go into an engineering job at AFRL to increase his chances of deploying. He got his wish in 2010 and left for Iraq with a team from the Army Corps of Engineers.

“I was an Air Force guy in an Army uniform,” Kieffer said. “I was attached to the Baghdad Resident Office, and I volunteered to be an operations officer for them. I planned and executed a lot of movements to the different project sites. We were there to build police stations, hospitals, telecommunications centers, tank facilities for their Army and all sorts of stuff.”

Keiffer said for the most part, the deployment went smoothly. He had been there for five of the six months of his deployment and travelled “outside the wire” more than 40 times without incident. Typically, he and his team would use lightly-armored SUVs when they were going downtown and mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles on the outskirts of town.

But on this particular day, things were different.

“We were going to a place that was a one-way-in, one-way-out type of a place, so that’s really not the best case scenario,” Kieffer said. “And this time instead of taking MRAPs, we were in the lightly armored SUVs because the MRAPs were in the shop that day.”

Other factors that day led to a situation that would soon lead to a tragic chain of events. According to Kieffer, there was no close air support available, and the team was going out later in the day than normal.

“Basically we got ambushed,” he said. “The first out of the four vehicles got hit by a conventional (improvised explosive device). Our vehicle, the third vehicle, almost simultaneously got hit by an explosively formed penetrating IED, so it’s basically like a copper plate that has the munition behind it, and forms a slug and basically punches through anything. That went through our vehicle like butter about two feet in front of my forehead, and I was sitting on the blast side.”

Three of the four vehicles in the convoy were hit. In addition to the EFP IED, the attackers sprayed the vehicles with automatic weapons fire and rocket propelled grenades.

“I was knocked out for a few seconds. I can’t really remember,” Kieffer said. “Then I woke up inside (the vehicle) and the major, my boss, was next to me screaming and I was just like, ‘What the heck is going on here?’ All of the lights and AC displays were dislodged. They were hanging by the wires. The entire inside was fragged with the copper fragments, the interior was all ripped; smoke was inside.”

“‘I was like, ‘What do I do?’ I was like, ‘OK, he’s higher ranking than me,’ so I basically just laid on top of him and let the contractors do what they needed to do to break contact to get out.”

The British contractors were able to subdue the attackers and all four vehicles in the convoy managed to make it back to the base. The team changed their flat tires and fixed whatever damages they could before making the two-hour drive back to base with three busted vehicles.

“It was an act of God that we all made it out, especially with our vehicle being fragged,” Kieffer said. “Before I left, my cousin Chris gave me this four-way medal that St. Christopher is part of, and he’s the guardian of travelers. That was the main reason for Chris to give me this, so I never took it off since the day he gave it to me. And I have yet to take it off, except when I have x-rays or when I wear my blues and what not. I feel like that had a great deal to do with me getting out alive.”

Once they arrived back at the base, each person on the team was examined by the doctors. It seemed everyone was fine – until it was Kieffer’s turn. He wasn’t able to pass a preliminary traumatic brain injury test. He was sent to the hospital in Baghdad for doctors there to observe his condition.

“While I was there, things weren’t getting better,” Kieffer said. “I used to joke around with the British contractors, and we would make fun of each other and banter back and forth. I was so slow mentally it felt like English was a second language because the processing speed was so slow. They would ask me how I’m doing and it would take a bunch of time to figure out what they said, to hear it, to break down the message, to figure out what they’re trying to get across and how I would respond. That’s a long time to say, ‘I’m good.’ So the bantering back and forth stopped.”

Besides not being able to keep up with the quick-witted conversations with his comrades, Kieffer said he was worried he wouldn’t be able to do the things he really enjoyed.

“I was pretty darn scared because I always felt like school was pretty easy,” Kieffer said. “I was a math guy and I enjoyed intellectual kinds of things. It scared me quite a bit. It actually brought me to tears one time thinking I was going to be that slow forever.”

Kieffer spent a week in the hospital in Baghdad and then returned to the United States to be treated. He said after a month he began healing but he still faced some huge challenges. His TBI not only affected his cognitive thinking skills, physically it left him to deal with excruciating headaches that nothing could soothe.

He tried to keep his injury under wraps but an upcoming assignment would put him to the test. Prior to being wounded, the Purple Heart medal recipient was accepted into the Air Force Institute of Technology ‘s engineering graduate school program. Just six months after returning home from his deployment, he was scheduled to start school.

“The first assignment I did there took me seven hours straight sitting at a computer,” Kieffer said. “I had to get it done. I had to figure everything out, and it was so frustrating because I knew it shouldn’t be (this hard). It was a probabilities and statistics course and this was stuff I had known for a long time and had mastered before.”

As Kieffer pushed himself to keep up with his studies, he stumbled upon a treatment for his TBI.

“As time went on in the program, that seven hour assignment became five hours and then four hours and after a year and a half in school those assignments were taking an hour and a half, two hours tops,” he said. “I think that has been my best therapy for improving my cognitive capabilities after the traumatic brain injury. It’s been basically just doing mental workouts.

“I thank God that I was able to go that assignment because I don’t know if I would’ve had the motivation to do all that learning on my own,” he said.

He also used his time in school to research the issues he and other injured, ill and wounded Airmen were facing and used it as the subject of his thesis.

These days, Kieffer continues to exercise his mind and his body.

Since his injury, Kieffer married his wife, Ana Maria, and inherited two daughters, Ana Paula and Ana Cristina. The couple was married in his wife’s native Peru, and her family only speaks Spanish. Kieffer said learning to speak Spanish as part of a bilingual family is something that helps him keep his cognitive skills sharpened.

“I noticed that if I don’t do anything intellectually, it’ll start to fade again,” he said. “That stuff goes if I have lack of sleep or high stress. Now it’s just a point of coping with it.”

Keiffer, who has scored 100 points on every active-duty physical training test he’s taken, continues to work his physical muscles in his personal training business and as an athlete in the 2013 Warrior Games. He will represent the Air Force in the Ultimate Champion – a pentathlon-style event that pits warriors from each branch of service, including Special Operations Command, against each other for the title of Ultimate Champion.

No matter what the score cards say, the resiliency and gumption displayed by wounded warriors like Kieffer, pushing through their pain – physically and mentally – has already earned them the title of champion.

PHOTO: Capt. Mitchell Kieffer gears up for a bike ride at the Academy during the Wounded Warrior Games training camp held in Colorado Springs, Colo., April 15, 2013. (U.S. Air Force photo by Desiree N. Palacios)

TBI and PTSD: ‘There is no shame in getting help’

by Tech. Sgt. Chuck Walker, 436th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
edited by Meredith March, Defense Media Activity Air Force Production

As high profile cases have emerged about National Football League players and other athletes sustaining brain injuries, and as the nation has watched veterans return home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder have become hot topics.

Allara2

Master Sgt. Jennifer Allara, an explosive ordnance disposal team leader at Dover Air Force Base, has experienced both.

In Sept. 2009, Allara’s EOD team at Provincial Reconstruction Farah, Afghanistan, was ambushed while out on patrol. A teammate, Staff Sgt. Bryan Berky, was killed by a sniper during the attack. For Allara, it was a wake-up call.

“We are trained to accept a certain amount of danger with our job,” she said. “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.”

Upon her return from Afghanistan, Allara went to mental health and sought therapy when she began experiencing symptoms of TBI and PTSD. For her, it seemed to bring about more questions than answers.

Determined to heal, Allara recently began treatment at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence in Bethesda, Md. She will undergo four weeks of analysis and leave the center with a care plan designed to meet her needs.

Allara hopes that her example will compel others to seek help if they are experiencing problems when they return from deployment.

“There is no shame in getting help,” she 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.”

For more on this story, click here.

Through Airmen’s Eyes: Chief discusses how family, pet help PTSD issues, Nov. 29, 2012


by Staff Sgt. Amanda Dick
Air Force Public Affairs Agency

I recently had the opportunity to work as a journalist for a couple of months at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. While there, I wrote many news articles on Air Force-level issues, with a few feature stories sprinkled in.

Though I’ve written several articles that have touched me throughout my seven years in the Air Force, none have touched my heart and soul as deeply as the story of Chief Master Sgt. Richard Simonsen and his service dog, Yoko.

Spending a good portion of the day with them was truly a blessing. Yoko is a tremendously sweet and smart dog, and Chief Simonsen is an inspiration to us all. I wrote this for Wounded Warrior Month this month; however, I think we should always appreciate and remember our wounded warriors – without their sacrifices, we wouldn’t have this great country.

So, without further ado, here is the article for your reading pleasure …

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Coming back from deployment, Airmen face the home-station work environment, reintegrating with family and settling back into day-to-day life.

What happens when an Airman is diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and mild Traumatic Brain Injury upon return?

For one Airman, his path to recovery has been slow, but he’s overcome the challenges he’s faced.

“I gave myself permission to let my traumatic brain injury and PTSD be there,” said Chief Master Sgt. Richard Simonsen, Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling senior enlisted leader. “Then, I gave myself permission to reset everything and not be embarrassed by it.”

Simonsen’s last deployment was as a Public Affairs officer with a provincial reconstructive team in both Nuristan and Kandahar Provinces in Afghanistan. He completed 66 outside-the-wire missions with five attacks on their team. Due to the attacks, he was hospitalized for back and hip injuries and again for head injuries.


Upon return, he said he felt depressed and anxious, and he had difficulty being in crowds.

“The toughest thing is feeling you cannot be as productive as you used to be,” Simonsen said. “Concentration was more difficult; writing e-mails was more difficult; composing my thoughts and expressing myself was more difficult.”

A big piece of the recovery process for Simonsen has been his service dog.

“Yoko is a wonderful addition to my life,” said the wounded warrior. “I say she’s a resiliency tool of the first order. My recovery was really, really slow – it still is. Physically, I’m broken. And, the emotional, mental part was recovering slowly as well.”

While at the TBI clinic one day, he interacted so positively with the facility dog that it was suggested he look into getting a service dog for himself.

“Once they placed her with me, the change was almost immediate,” Simonsen said. “I’m not the old Rich Simonsen – I never will be. But, I’m a lot closer, because of her. She’s an unobtrusive companion; she provides a calming influence. She’s a good wingman for me.”

Yoko also enables him to be in crowds and speak in public, like when he speaks to Airmen at Right Start briefings or Airmen Professional Enhancement Courses. And, although Yoko is noticeable, she doesn’t detract from the chief’s message.

“A lot of his focus I felt was on ways to deal with people,” said U.S. Air Force Honor Guard Ceremonial Guardsman Airman 1st Class Nicholas Priest at an APE Course. “I thought he had a lot of valuable information on how to deal with what we may have issues with. If you have a positive work environment, it helps people work a lot harder. Look out for people, especially where sexual assault prevention and suicide awareness are concerned. We’re one force, so we need to work as a team.”

Though Simonsen said he has a tendency to isolate himself and has a hard time dealing with the physical pain from his injuries, he tries not to focus solely on the negative.

“The biggest difference on a positive side is I take a little more time to think about things before I respond,” the senior enlisted leader said. “That gives me a little more contemplative way of being.”

Aside from the resources of mental health and the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program, Simonsen said his family and church have been a huge source of support for him.

“My wife has followed me around the world for going on 25 years,” he said. “She loves me no matter what. But, she knew I was suffering when I came home. She pushed me to get help. Everyone has a support system they can tap into. We need to use them in our recovery, but we also have to remember they’re there working hard and taking a lot of the stress.”

For those who may be suffering silently with PTSD, Simonsen offers this piece of advice.

“Coming forward shows courage and strength and is in line with our core values. You can go get help and still succeed in your career.”

Though there are many programs out there for wounded warriors, November helps shed light on issues facing wounded veterans as it is Wounded Warrior Month.

Click the hyperlink to view view the video on Chief Master Sgt. Richard Simonsen.

Photo 1: Chief Master Sgt. Richard Simonsen hugs his service dog, Yoko, while on a walk. Simonsen lives with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a condition he endured on a deployment to Afghanistan and the service dog helps him with his daily activities. PTSD can occur after one has been through a traumatic event. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Christina Brownlow)

Photo 2: Chief Master Sgt. Richard Simonsen works as the senior enlisted leader at Joint Base Anacostia- Bolling in Washington D.C. Simonsen speaks to Airmen about his daily struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and how to seek help. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Christina Brownlow)

Photo 3: Chief Master Sgt. Richard Simonsen works as the senior enlisted advisor on Joint Base Anacostia- Bolling in Washington D.C. He lives with Post Tramatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) a condition he endured from a deployment to Afghanistan last year. Yoko, his service dog, helps him with his day to day activities. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Christina Brownlow)