The year was 2011. When Maj. Stephen Taylor, U.S. Marines, returned home from yet another tour of duty, this one in Afghanistan, all was not well. In fact, it was anything but well — and so, as it turned out, was Taylor.
"I was angry at everybody. My wife and my neighbors were like, something’s not right, something’s not clicking,” said Taylor. “I acted ridiculous to my wife and kids, said awful things.” He related to his young sons a story about a dead Afghan.
"I was not in my right frame of mind.”
Taylor, like most soldiers fresh off of combat, was used to going 90 miles per hour. Instead of taking the leave when his tour was over, he said yes when asked to take charge of a battalion at Camp Lejeune (the Marine Corps base camp in Jacksonville, North Carolina). He was eager to advance. “It was a full-bird Colonel’s position and I was a Major. I was working up two pay grades ahead of my rank.”
But as he put it, he started to come unglued. He suffered persistent insomnia. After a few months, he was having migraines every morning.
"I was forgetting things, I was scattered. I couldn’t get my thoughts together. I used to be able to stand up in front of the Marines and talk to them, now I’m struggling to find the words to speak in public. I started to really close myself off from doing things that I enjoyed, visiting friends.”
"I couldn’t tie my boots.”
At one point he found himself screaming at his wife about, of all things, pizza toppings. He noticed his son cowering in a corner and covering his ears — and realized he needed help.
He told a medical officer about his symptoms. “Luckily for me, I was a battalion commander, so I was a priority to get looked at.” At the time, Taylor said, there was one neurologist for the 10,000 Marines stationed at Camp Lejeune.
An MRI revealed brain lesions that were evidence of severe head trauma. In other words, Taylor had a traumatic brain injury (TBI), the signature injury of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It almost certainly stemmed from one or more of several IED (improvised explosive device) events he experienced. “The last one was fairly severe,” said Taylor.
The doctor referred him to the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, a 72,000 square foot facility on the Navy campus at Bethesda, Maryland, designed to diagnose and treat military personnel and veterans with TBI and psychological health conditions. The center opened in 2010 and was constructed by the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund (IFHF), a non-for-profit leader in supporting the men and women of the Armed Forces and their families.
Taylor was hesitant to leave his post and become “a washout.” His wife agreed it would be a career ender. But after talking to two Colonels and his General, all of whom encouraged him to go, in early 2012 he began a four-week intensive program at the Center to help with his TBI symptoms and his PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
"They not only looked at how your brain functioned but you sat in a room and you told all the medical staff there your story and what were your problems and your issues.” He had four doctors examining him for two hours on the first day. “I say it was 10 years worth of medical treatment in four weeks.”
In addition to medication, treatment included music, art and poetry therapy. “You found what worked best for you.” Patients leave with a treatment plan to move forward with.
The facility is one-of-a-kind. “There’s service dogs wandering around, there for you to pet. These dogs can sense something’s up; they’d walk over to Marines and sailors.…We all became very close. You’re in a group with these guys for a four-week period and that was your team.”
"It was invigorating. It was life changing.”
Two weeks into the program, his wife visited. “She was like, ‘you’re a totally different person,’” said Taylor, who credits the Center for saving his marriage. "It took the Intrepid to make me realize there’s more to life than that next deployment, that next promotion.
Taylor lives in North Carolina with his wife and three kids. He currently works in the operations office of the Wounded Warrior Battalion and plans to retire from the Marines in the spring.
After his program ended he was asked to speak on behalf of the IFHF. “I don’t like to talk about it, but I feel obligated to talk about it because I want more officers and more senior enlisted to get to go to this place or get good treatment.”
There is just one National Intrepid Center of Excellence, and only 120 service members can go through each year, said Taylor. But satellite branches, known as Intrepid Spirit Centers, are opening in up to nine major military bases around the country. Five are already open. These centers, also built by IFHF, will allow urgently needed care to be brought to more troops and closer to home.
NAPA AUTO PARTS is one of IFHF’s largest donors. Since 2012, it has raised more than $7 million for the IFHF through its annual “Get Back and Give Back” campaign.
Dave Winters, President of IFHF, said, “This donation helps to ensure that the men and women who are injured while defending our nation will have access to the best care available to help them recover from their injuries and return to their lives.”
Just as Taylor has done.
He sometimes visits his boys at school during lunch and is generally making up for lost family time. He is pursuing a master’s degree in human resources management and is training to become a soccer coach for veteran’s tournaments. “It’s something else for my kit bag when I retire.”
Though his kids still joke about Dad’s “PTSD moments,” compared to five years ago, all is well for Taylor. "I’m here and I’m looking forward to the next phase of my life. I’m grateful for my family and to be healthy and to be diagnosed. That was my biggest problem. I’m thankful to get the treatment that I received and thankful for still having my family."