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The Bush Institute Speaks with Spencer Milo about the Invisible Wounds of War
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 start today with Spencer Milo, 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?
Growing up in Seattle and Sacramento, I always knew I wanted to serve in the U.S. Military. Both of my grandfathers served during World War II. The tragic events on 9/11 only solidified my desire and my perceived obligation to join. After I graduated high school in 2006, I joined the United States Army as an Airborne Infantrymen and was stationed at Fort Bragg from 2006 – 2013. I served a tour in Iraq and in Afghanistan. I was injured during both tours and then medically retired from the Army in June of 2013 as a Staff Sergeant.
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?
Before I joined the military, I had never heard of the concept of an invisible injury, the different types, or the varying levels of severity. Soon after joining, I learned all about them as well as the negative stereotypes that are associated with them. I often heard phrases like “drink water and face out,” or “suck it up, you don’t want to be a profile Ranger do you?” -- a reference to soldiers who experience TBI and/or PTS.
I embraced the negative stereotypes until I experienced invisible wounds myself. After I was injured and diagnosed with PTS and multiple TBIs, I felt foolish for thinking the way I did. Now, I advocate for early intervention and detection protocols because I know that invisible wounds can be just more deadly than visible wounds.
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?
My recovery was a two part system which involved both medical rehabilitation and personal rehabilitation. Medically, I went through any and every prescription they could throw at me. So many pills in fact, that my wife described me as, “being medicated into a zombie-like presence. I didn’t even know who you were most of the time.”
Eventually, I went to the NICoE (National Intrepid Center of Excellence) at Walter Reed Bethesda, a premiere military treatment facility for TBI and PTS. Looking back, I realize that is where my true healing process began.
Prior to NICoE, the lack of effective communication between my wife and me (mostly my fault) was causing major issues. The NICoE was different because they merged the medical and personal rehabilitation processes. On top of all of the medical tests and procedures, my wife was invited to participate to ensure we were on the same page and so she could help me.
What role have sports and physical activities played in your recovery, both physically and mentally?
There are three major contributing factors to my rehabilitation:
- Family has been crucial along with the non-traditional methods.
- Non-Traditional Healing Modalities (Service Dog, Cryo-Therapy, Meditation, Yoga, etc.)
- Sports and physical activities have truly given me a new lease on life. I have learned that just because I am injured does not mean I’m injured all the time. There are still some activities I cannot or choose not to do, but for the most part I try to get out as often as possible. I ride my mountain bike weekly, I go to the gym a 3-5 days a week, and I walk the dogs frequently. I feel more confident, my mental health is far more balanced and I am an overall happier person because of it.
What would you say to other veterans who are struggling with their transition, especially those who have not made the decision to seek help?
The thing I always try to tell other veterans that are struggling with the transition is to swallow your pride and get off the couch. Be proud of your service and thankful you’re alive. Ask for help when you need it and don’t be afraid to admit that you may need help. We are all in this fight together even after our service has come to an end. You can best serve your brothers and sisters in arms by setting an example of what a strong and successful transition looks like.
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.Full Bio
Spencer Milo is a medically retired, post-9/11 U.S. Army combat veteran and Purple Heart recipient who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. A passionate advocate and spokesman for veterans and veterans’ issues, he also serves transitioning military members and veterans in his civilian career today.
An Airborne Infantryman who was recognized as an exceptional leader in combat, Milo held a number of command and control roles in military assignments in the United States, Europe and Asia, in addition to the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts
In 2008, during a 16-month tour in Iraq where he saw action in Baghdad and Mosul, Milo suffered a concussion and other minor injuries when a routine convoy of U.S. Humvees encountered small arms fire. While evading enemy contact, Milo got tossed around inside the turret, and his vehicle crashed. One year later, he was told by doctors stateside this his injury had caused a brain tumor and was given a 6-month terminal diagnosis. Heavily medicated and bedridden for months, he started having seizures. After his family fought for a second opinion, he was sent to the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), where he was eventually told he had been misdiagnosed.
Cleared back for duty in January 2010, Milo chose to continue following his passion for military service and he deployed soon after to Afghanistan. Less than a year later, in January 2011, he was on combat patrol in Spin Boldak, a district in Kandahar Province. An Afghan boy, who stood just feet away from Milo, detonated himself as a suicide bomber. Thrown 15- 20 feet by the blast, Milo charged back into the smoke to find his wounded platoon buddy and drag him to safety. Among his injuries: small amounts of shrapnel to his left side and his face; injuries to his spine; hearing loss; Post Traumatic Stress; and, Traumatic Brain Injury.
Milo was returned to the states for medical treatment at Fort Bragg and, after six months, he was transferred to the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE) at Walter Reed Bethesda, where he underwent four weeks of intensive treatments. Milo was medically retired as a result of his injuries.
Today, Milo lives in Castle Rock, Colorado with his wife and two children, where he continues to serve the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces. He served as an Area Manager for Hire Heroes USA for four years, a national nonprofit that empowers U.S. military members, veterans and military spouses to succeed in the civilian workforce. Milo is now the Director of Veteran Programs, Communication and Strategic Development for the Marcus Institute for Brain Health, a medical institute focused on serving Military Veterans and retired elite athletes with primarily mild to moderate brain injuries, post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety.
Milo serves on the Board of Trustees for the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund as an Honorary Co-Chair. His work with veteran service organizations also includes: The George W. Bush Institute’s Military Service Initiative (MSI); Warrior Canine Connection; Parker’s Platoon; and, Team Red, White and Blue.
He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Strategic Communications from the University of Colorado, in Colorado Springs.Full Bio
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