This story is part of HuffPost Impact's 12 Days, 12 Cities, 12 Families series, highlighting Americans who have persevered to overcome incredible challenges and the nonprofits that helped change their lives. Check back tomorrow for the continuation of this series.
Since the 2002 invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, over 1.7 million men and women have served in the United States' two Middle Eastern wars. A little more than 10% of those have been diagnosed with some sort of mental disorder -- these include Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and a slurry of other depressive disorders. Now, 30,000 more troops will be deployed to Afghanistan, and thus another 3,000 men and women will return home with some level of mental trauma; it is a statistical certainty.
The following story, however, is just about one soldier, and how a life continues after an injury that has damaged both body and mind. Edward V. Harris joined the U.S. Marine Corps just 10 days before his 19th birthday. His first deployment was to a marine expeditionary unit in Okinawa, Japan, and upon returning, he married his wife, Cassandra, whom he's known since the sixth grade. His second deployment came shortly after he learned that Cassandra was pregnant. Their first son, Dakota, was born while he was in Iraq. "He was five months old by the time I got back," he said.
Far From Harmless
And when he did get back, things were already different. During his tour of duty in Iraq, Harris was working a night patrol from Camp Rawah in Al Anbar province, about 125 miles northwest of Baghdad. He recalls that night:
"I was vehicle commander for the light armored vehicles and we were just doing a basic patrol. Neither me or my driver saw a ditch and we hit the ditch going at about, I would say, 25-30 mph and my head -- the hatch and my helmet flew off and I just remember my head going forward and hitting the top of the vehicle."
This was an injury that seemed, for a time, relatively harmless. Indeed, after a vehicle crash in a war zone, escaping with one's life must be considered a victory. In Edward's case, the ramifications took time to reveal themselves.
"I didn't really think too much of it," he said. "I just had a headache, that type of stuff. When I got back from Iraq my wife instantly noticed that there were a lot of different changes, not just since we hadn't been around each other, but I was more irritable, I had memory loss -- it really started to put a strain on our relationship and I've known her since sixth grade. She knows me better than anybody else."
Not only as a returning veteran, but as a new father, Edward knew that something was wrong. He was distant from his family, becoming increasingly irritable, and having problems finding a job. Despite his injury, he couldn't get unemployment benefits as, technically, he was physically able to work. It took a visit to the VA to diagnose him with Traumatic Brain Injury, something he'd never heard of before.
"The statistics are really staggering," he said. "Just in the U.S., 1.4 million people sustain TBI each year. That's not including all the military. I'd never heard about it, but it's a pretty big deal."
Edward knew he needed help to re-assimilate back into his normal life, especially with his newly discovered injury; he took the VA's advice and visited Operation Homefront.
Coming Home and Giving Back
"[Operation Homefront] has been in the state of Washington for about six years. We see the full range of wounded and injured soldiers that you would expect to see returning from both Iraq and Afghanistan." This is John McDonagh, chapter president for Operation Homefront in Washington State. "Significant numbers of those soldiers suffer from some form of TBI."
When McDonagh first met with Edward Harris, he was made aware of both the financial and emotional problems facing his family. Operation Homefront helped the Harris family with their finances, and McDonagh introduced Edward to Headstrong For Life, a support group for people with TBI.
Edward's work with others has helped his own recovery. "They work a lot with TBI victims -- not only military but teens in general. Just giving them someone to look up to and someone who knows what they're going through. I've been meeting with teenagers, too -- just trying to give back to the community.
"When I look at other people, it makes it not as bad. I've had a lot of time. I wish I had someone as soon as I found out I had TBI so I've been helping out with that."
Edward says he's always been willing to help someone. In fact, it's been a part of his personality since he was a young man. Now that he himself has received help, giving back has become an even more important part of his life.
"In talking to Edward it was obvious he needed to be doing something that made him feel good about himself," McDonagh said. "I happen to know [Desiree Douglas] who started [Headstrong For Life]. Her son was hit in a cross-walk at age 12. She started an organization because she saw there was very little awareness of TBI. Now there are 20 teens in the organization and they're partnering with soldiers at Ft. Lewis to create mentorships."
Today, Edward still has symptoms. He's spending more time with his children and his relationship with Cassandra has improved. He speaks with other TBI sufferers at Headstrong For Life and helps them cope with their emotions. He's on the track now to a better life and you can help support him and the organizations that have made a difference his life -- and the lives of thousands of others.
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