The giving Spirit 

Nonprofit seeks to bring a cutting-edge brain-injury center to Fort Carson

click to enlarge Fort Campbell's Intrepid Spirit Center opened a year ago. - INTREPID FALLEN HEROES FUND
  • Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund
  • Fort Campbell's Intrepid Spirit Center opened a year ago.

The video opens with a 27-year-old talking about being hit by a roadside bomb in the Middle East in 2010.

He says he heard explosions, and the next thing he remembers is waking up in a hospital next to somebody screaming. He, like thousands of other soldiers, had suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI), and later would experience problems affecting his work and personal life.

Fortunately, the soldier is one of hundreds who have been helped by a new methodology developed by the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund through its Intrepid Spirit Center at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

Treatment blends various strategies — neuro-imaging, virtual reality simulation, yoga, art therapy, meditation, spiritual counseling — to help the brain heal on its own. The Intrepid Center claims a 90 percent success rate in returning soldiers to duty who've suffered from TBI.

Now the New York City-based IFHF, which reported $24.7 million in assets in 2014, is using videos like the one above to help raise the $12 million needed to build a center at Fort Carson. But it's unclear how the center would square with a post where some commanders have sought to kick out, rather than rehabilitate, soldiers with war-related problems.

When asked about the center, Carson spokesperson Daneta Johnson initially said the post wasn't aware of the project. She later modified her statement, saying, "We're aware of it but don't have any further information at this point."

Intrepid Spirit Center - TBI Film from Passing Lane Films on Vimeo.

About 320,000 soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered brain injuries since 2000, according to a RAND Corp. study. TBI and post-traumatic stress disorder can bring about depression, violence, sleep disorders, relationship turmoil and other problems all the way up to suicide.

The Spirit Centers offer treatment developed by the IFHF in cooperation with experts nationwide. In 2010 the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, a 72,000-square-foot facility in Bethesda, Maryland, opened near the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

Since then, the IFHF has built Intrepid Spirit Centers for TBI at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina; Fort Belvoir, Virginia; and Fort Campbell. The group hopes to open centers at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and Fort Hood, Texas, this year. After that, it's planning for Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state; Camp Pendleton, California; Fort Bliss, Texas; and Fort Carson.

"In each of these cases, you're dealing with bases in which a lot of men have and will see a lot of action," says Clark Judge, a fundraising official for the 15-year-old IFHF.

Once built, the facilities are operated by the Department of Defense. Judge says they're "a gymnasium for the brain," with treatments based on the concept that the brain can heal itself if given the proper tools.

Marc Zola, a neuropsychologist at the Fort Campbell center, says on the video that the treatments reflect medicine's new understanding of neuroplasticity. "We thought the brain was no longer able to change after different ages," Zola says. "We now know the brain actually will sprout and prune new connections throughout a life span."

Acupuncture is one avenue for those changes, according to Lynn Giarrizo, a pain management specialist at Fort Campbell who's also featured on the video. A first step toward healing, she says, is dealing with chronic pain, which can alter the brain. Referring to the Intrepid Spirit Center's work, she says, "In the last couple of years, we've seen a 50 percent reduction in the number of written opioid prescriptions."

Capt. Rick Freedman, commanding officer at the Naval Hospital at Camp Lejeune, goes so far in the video as to call the center the "crown jewel of our entire medical campus."

The $12 million Fort Carson center is to be located near Evans Army Community Hospital, Judge says, though Carson's Johnson won't confirm that and says any groundbreaking won't happen until late 2016.

Last September, the post activated the Warrior Transition Battalion's new Community Care Unit, which was to manage "the healing of wounded, ill and injured Soldiers in their home communities by providing medical management and mission command," according to a news release.

The nonprofit Wounded Warrior Project in Colorado Springs, which lists among its goals "to provide unique, direct programs and services to meet the needs of injured service members," didn't return a phone call seeking comment on the proposed Carson center.

The post has gained a reputation for ousting soldiers with TBI and PTSD rather than helping them, according to published reports spanning a decade. Commanders prosecute wounded soldiers for crimes that could be linked to wartime injuries, such as drinking too much because they can't sleep and then being arrested for domestic violence or DUI, leading to their discharge without medical benefits ("Suiting up," News, May 21, 2014).

"Once a guy commits a crime, they don't want to have anything to do with him," says soldier advocate Robert Alvarez, who has been banned from Carson after helping several obtain medical benefits post-discharge. "This is a segment of the population that's toxic to the Army, and [the Army] made them toxic."

But about an IFHF facility, Alvarez is hopeful.

"We welcome any center that honestly diagnoses and treats a soldier properly," he says via email. "We believe our wounded should never be denied their benefits and that benefits should be changed to an 'entitlement,' guaranteeing we never leave our fallen, regardless of where they fall."

Intrepid Spirit Center - Outtakes from Passing Lane Films on Vimeo.


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