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Earlier this year, the Bush Institute launched 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 well-being 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.
In honor of the Olympics this month, we are featuring Patty Collins, a Paralympian who goes to Rio in a few weeks and is a member of Team 43 Sports, who participated in the Warrior 100K. Patty recently spoke with the Bush Institute about how the invisible wounds of war impacted her and how she worked to overcome her injuries using the power of sport as part of her rehabilitation.
Can you tell us a little bit about your service? What made you want to join the military? Branch, rank and where you were stationed?
I attended Rutgers University on an Army ROTC scholarship. Initially, I planned to fulfill my 5 year service obligation and leave the Service and then figure out what was next. The short story is, I never found something more challenging or rewarding than military service. I retired with over 24 years of Active Service as a Colonel. I had the privilege to serve in some of the Army’s most challenging assignments: Fort Lewis, Fort Bragg, Fort Hood, and deployments to the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Did you know much about invisible wounds before you entered the military? If so, what did you know them? What kind of stigmas are associated with invisible wounds within the military culture?
I didn’t know much about invisible wounds until after 9-11 when folks started coming home with emotional challenges or until I was around some people who entered service with some challenges from their civilian life.
While the stigma associated with these injuries has decreased over the past 10 years, there is still room for improvement. We never hesitate to go see a doctor for a sports injury or a fever, but when we are mentally not as strong as we can be, we still feel like asking for help is a sign of weakness.
I think the growing trend of leadership willing to open up and talk about their personal struggles has helped tremendously. Officers and Non-Commissioned Officers who openly talk about invisible wounds demonstrate to their subordinates that these injuries can be overcome.
In learning about visible and 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 about what your recovery has been like? What was helpful to you?
After my accident, but before my amputation, I fell into a depressed state. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, but I knew I wasn’t the normal, happy, resilient person I previously was. I remember googling “symptoms of depression” and finding myself mentally checking YES to many of them. I knew I was in trouble. It was hard to make the decision to get help, but I knew I didn’t want to remain where I was emotionally.
The next day, I went in and told a Non-Commissioned Officer that I needed help. He took me to see a mental health counselor that day. I learned that physical activity (which was always my solution to a bad day) produced serotonin. I had been an athlete since I was 13, so without my normal level of serotonin, my body was unbalanced. Also, I had previously identified as an active person and realizing that I could no longer participate in physical activity (my passion!) due to my injury, was crushing. I became obsessed with who I was before, instead of focusing on what I could become.
It took about 3-4 months of therapy and a short stint with some anti-depressants before I could see the clouds lifting and I knew I was going to be okay again. Deciding to amputate my leg was not a difficult decision once I had my mental health back and I was even more motivated to find and define my new normal.
Depression was more emotionally painful than losing my leg was physically painful. However, I am now thankful I experienced it so I can share my story in hopes of helping others realize they are not alone. It also helped me erase the stigmas I associated with invisible wounds.
What role have sports & physical activities played in your recovery? Helped you recover physically? Helped you recover mentally?
Sports and physical activity have always been extremely important to me. I absolutely love to train hard and compete. However, the best part is the shared experience of the challenge with others. My best friends are those I race against. We all work hard and race hard, but when the race is over, we are great friends who share our lives together.
Physical activity improves mental strength as well as physical strength. It is often a social activity. I love Team Red, White and Blue because it brings former military and community members together through physical activity. I can’t think of a better program to help integrate veterans back into their communities.
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 first thing I would say is that everyone has a choice to be mentally resilient or not. We all don’t start this way, but we often limit ourselves from becoming the person we want to be. Not every resource is right for everyone, but as a community, we are doing a much better job taking care of each other.
Maybe someone isn’t ready to see a counselor. That’s okay, but they should find another vet to confide in, or a family member, friend, or someone within their community. Go out, volunteer and seek opportunities to learn a new physical activity. It sounds cliché, but volunteering can give you a greater sense of gratification. If you are recovering from injuries, go serve at a soup kitchen, help with race registration at a local race, and get outside and meet people.
The choice to get help is very hard and very personal. However, the choice to not seek help can be devastating to the individual and those around him or her.
PHOTO CREDIT: ©2015 Rich Cruse \ ITU Media
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
Colonel Patricia Collins served in the U.S. Army as a Communications Officer from 1991-2015. In 2006, after returning from Iraq, she was struck by a car while bicycling to work. Her injury left her as a below knee amputee but did not affect her military service. Upon rehabilitation, she continued to serve, including a deployment to Afghanistan and commanding a Signal Battalion. Collins concluded her military service in Washington, DC.
Adjusting to life as an amputee was initially a challenge, but sports absolutely helped Collins regain her confidence. She still participates in all previous activities, but has found finding new ways to tackle wearing a prosthetic to be a relatively small price to pay to continue to be active.
A former triathlete, it was important for Collins to find ways to challenge herself physically, post amputation. While she returned to full military fitness, including free fall status, bicycling initially became her preferred sport over running. Specifically, mountain biking gave Collins the same adventurous joy as trail running previously had.
After negotiating the challenges of Big Bend National Park and meeting fellow warriors, Collins continued mountain biking, but also returned to the triathlon racing scene. Working with other physically challenged athletes through organizations like the Challenged Athletes Foundation, Dare 2 Tri or a grass roots neighborhood effort is a great way to help others. Collins also returned to her first love, triathlon and represented the U.S. as a member of the 2016 U.S. Paralympic team in the sport of Paratriathlon.
Team 43 is very much like many of her former military units. It’s a family going through some similar stuff. When they are together it is a lot of fun and sometimes a competition, but always in fun. When the Team is apart, they are only a phone call or email away from one another and that’s a reassuring place to be.
Collins currently serves as a Principal for the McChrystal Group in Alexandria, Virginia. She has a son, Gabriel, adopted from Guatemala.Full Bio
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