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The Bush Institute Speaks with Michael Rodriguez about the Invisible Wounds of War

March 4, 2016 by Ashley McConkey, Michael Rodriguez
Because we know that the health and wellbeing of post-9/11 veterans is often complex, the Bush Institute has asked veterans to explain in their own words what it’s like to experience one or more of these injuries.

This year, the Bush Institute is launching a new initiative to raise awareness about the invisible wounds of war: Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post Traumatic Stress (PTS).  A major focus of our work will examine how best to ensure veterans seek and receive effective treatment. We also will concentrate on strategies to eliminate barriers to care, including removing stigmas associated with these wounds.  Because we know that the health and wellbeing of post-9/11 veterans is often complex, the Bush Institute has asked veterans to explain in their own words what it’s like to experience one or more of these injuries.

We wrap up with Michael Rodriguez, a member of Team 43 Sports, who has participated in the Warrior 100K. He spoke recently with the Bush Institute about how he came to understand the impact of the invisible wounds of war.

Can you tell us a little bit about your service?  What made you want to join the military? What was your branch and rank, and where were you stationed? 

I feel blessed to have served for 21 years in the U.S. Army, 15 of which were as a Special Forces Green Beret.  Growing up in southern New Mexico, my first heroes were not comic book figures or TV characters. They were, and continue to be, my father who fought in Vietnam, my grandfathers and my great uncles who fought in World War II.  

Their service, quiet humility, professionalism, and continued leadership had an immense impact on me as a child and my career choice.  They weren’t boastful about their experiences. They only spoke with reverence of the men they served with and the people they met. 

With less than a year in the Army at the age of 18, I deployed to Somalia in 1993. It was the first of many deployments, and it started my 21-year career and journey. 

Did you know much about invisible wounds before you entered the military?  If so, what did you know about them?  What kind of stigmas are associated with invisible wounds within the military culture?

As a child, I didn’t know that the heroes in my life suffered from PTS and that I was around invisible wounds every day.  I couldn't understand why my heroes were solitary men of few words, yet I never passed judgment.

Webster’s defines stigma as: a set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society or group of people have about something.  Unfortunately, many of us continue to face the stigma of invisible wounds, in spite of the awareness-raising efforts for PTS and TBI.  Those of us with these invisible wounds are not "broken, crazy,” or “a liability.” We are facing unique challenges and obstacles that can be overcome.  This isn't an issue that only veterans face. Millions of American citizens face similar challenges and stigmas. 

In learning about invisible wounds, PTS and TBI, we know they affect everyone differently.  We have also learned that the road to recovery looks a bit different for everyone affected by these wounds.  Can you share with us what your recovery has been like?  What helped you? 

Facing PTS and TBI has been the most difficult fight of my life.  I found myself in a war with myself and I wasn’t trained for that combat.  

After I made the decision to seek help, I spent a month at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE), where I received a diagnosis.  I remember the doctor explaining all 17 of diagnoses and the accompanying treatment plans.  When he got to the last diagnosis of severe PTS, I got angry.  The anger I felt was triggered by the thought of facing my painful memories, everything I was denying or hiding. 

I was subsequently hospitalized and began to equip myself for the fight against my invisible wounds, my next mission.  My treatment began with a 4-week stay at an inpatient treatment facility for PTS and chemical dependency.  I ended up staying eight weeks, because I must have needed the extra training.  If it had not been for my U.S. Special Operations Command Care Coalition Advocate, who was also my Battalion Command Sergeant Major at one time, I never would have received help.  I owe that man my life because he is proof that not all lives are saved overseas on a combat deployment. 

What role have sports and physical activities played in your recovery, both physically and mentally?

I grew up playing sports and was very active as a child playing soccer, running or as a young boxer.  I love competition and challenging myself physically, which was one of the reasons I joined the Army.  

When I was told I could no longer be a Special Forces Green Beret, I felt lost and alone.  I kept asking myself "What am I now?"  I knew I was a father, husband, friend, and son, but that's not how service members identify themselves.  I fell into a hole of isolation.  One day, my eldest son told me it was okay that I wasn't as fast or strong as I used to be, he still wanted to play with me.  I was crushed because it allowed me to see that while I may not be the same tactical athlete I had been in the Army, that didn't change who I was.  

Sports helped me find a piece of my identity I thought I had lost.  I worked very hard to regain my strength, endurance, and speed so I could play with my sons.  The fight to get my physical fitness back fostered fellowship with my veteran community and helped me to reconnect with my family.  Whether I was training to climb one of the seven summits, riding a mountain bike, hitting a heavy bag, or getting crushed by a Crossfit workout, I found a piece of myself.

What would you say to other veterans who are struggling with their transition, especially those who have not made the decision to seek help? 

It's okay to talk about these obstacles.  I always encourage people to keep lines of communication open.  Hiding behind shame will not solve anything.  How do you describe something you cannot see, touch, or quantify?  I think it requires a tremendous amount of patience and personal courage.  You cannot let fear determine how you respond to an issue.  Until you clearly identify an enemy, you will never truly be able to defeat them. 

We are part of the greatest nation and fighting force this planet has ever seen.  Take your strengths and apply them towards your future and next mission, continue your leadership and stay in the fight!  We all are vulnerable and need help at times, and you are never alone.


Author

Ashley McConkey
Ashley McConkey

Ashley McConkey manages communications for the George W. Bush Presidential Center and is responsible for message development on behalf of the Economic Growth, Human Freedom and Military Service initiatives.

Before joining the Bush Center, McConkey worked in the communications and public policy arena in Austin, Texas for both non-profit and corporate entities.  She also served as a Budget and Policy Adviser to Texas House Speaker Joe Straus. 

McConkey grew up in Greenville, Texas and moved to Austin to study Political Science at St. Edward’s University.  She and her husband reside in Dallas.

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Michael  Rodriguez
Michael Rodriguez

Sergeant First Class Michael “Rod” Rodriguez is a retired Special Forces Green Beret with nine deployments, from his first in Somalia with 10th Mountain Division to his last in Afghanistan with 7th Special Forces Group.  His last assignment was as a Sniper Instructor at Fort Bragg (Range 37) where he was medically retired after 21 years of continuous service for numerous injuries he received while in service to our great nation.

Rodriguez comes from a military family, his Grandfathers served during WWII and his father is a Vietnam Veteran.  His wife retired recently after 21 years in the U.S. Army and his eldest son is currently serving in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne Division, marking the 16th deployment for the Rodriguez Household.  Rodriguez advocates for Veterans and their families and speaks publicly on the need to decrease the misunderstanding between civilians and the military.  He is a huge advocate for Art and the impact it has on everyone’s lives and he practices his very own in the form of metalwork and blacksmithing.

Rodriguez serves as a member for President George W. Bush’s Military Service Initiative Advisory Council, he is the Executive Ambassador for the Green Beret Foundation, sits on the Leadership Board of the Global War on Terror Memorial Foundation, and is also on the Veteran Advisory Council for the VA in North Carolina.  Rodriguez assists with several other non-profits and is always only a phone call or email away for both the Civilian and Military community. 

Rodriguez was also inducted as a Fellow into the lauded “Explorers Club” based in Manhattan for his research efforts on Traumatic Brain Injury and Post Traumatic Stress.  He is a graduate student at Norwich University pursuing a Master’s Degree in Diplomacy.

Full Bio