VA Staff Teaches Injured to Cope; at Augusta Hospital, Young Veterans Take First Steps toward Their Independence

Article excerpt


AUGUSTA -- Since the Augusta Veterans Affairs Medical Centers opened its rehabilitation unit for active-duty service members, troops wounded in Iraq have come in with traumatic brain injuries, amputated limbs, multiple bone fractures, spinal cord injuries and blast wounds.

Most of them have already been through the worst of their surgeries and intensive medical procedures, as well as their depression. It's up to their doctors and therapists at the Augusta VA to help them cope with their drastically altered lives.

"They're young people, and usually you don't expect that to happen to your life, to be with a disability," said Celso Bolet, a consulting psychiatrist who works in the VA's Active Duty Rehabilitation Unit.

The troops from Iraq are intensely loyal to their units, and their emotional problems often have to do with leaving them behind, Bolet said. The VA's first objective is to return them to duty. If that can't be done, the goal is to get them as self-sufficient as possible.

One of the soldiers is Lance Cpl. Michael L. Jernigan, a 26-year-old Marine from St. Petersburg, Fla. Jernigan was riding in the machine gun turret of a Humvee last summer in Iraq when insurgents detonated a homemade booby trap called an improvised explosive device.

The last thing Jernigan remembers seeing was human brains splattering on his legs.

"Then the shrapnel hit me, and I went blind," said Jernigan, who was in a coma for seven days. "Now, if that's not enough to warp your mind, I don't know what is."

A corporal riding in the front passenger seat was hit in the head and killed. Shrapnel from the blast had destroyed both Jernigan's eyes, crushed his forehead, taken out the knuckle on his right index finger and part of one on his pinky, torn up his left kneecap and cut into the femoral artery of his left leg.

For the past four months Jernigan has been treated in the blind rehab and active-duty units, building his strength and learning how to make his way in the world on his own again.

He wrapped up his stay at the Augusta VA last week. He took part in a graduation ceremony in the day room, wearing a Hawaiian shirt, khaki pants and flip-flops, and holding his blind cane, which he modified with a driver golf club grip at a pro shop.

He thanked his instructors for giving him his independence back.

"I'll be fine," Jernigan told a fellow patient who came up to shake his hand. "I just gotta go get cut on some more."

To date, 32 percent of the 225 active-duty service members treated at the Augusta VA since opening the rehab unit in 2004 have been returned to duty. …


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