July 1, 2012
“I was pretty pissed,” recalls the former U.S. Army sergeant, who had served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2004 to 2006. “I mean, I have this distinct memory of sitting in a hospital in Germany holding my daughter, watching a basketball game. Imagine people telling you things that you thought were real weren’t real—pretty important things too. I was quite a handful to deal with. I argued with everyone. A lot.”
For Toews, like the thousands of veterans returning from the wars that grew from the rubble of the twin towers nearly 11 years ago, home presented new battles.
“I basically had to start over,” says Toews, who earned the Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his service. “I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t walk. I don’t know how long it took before I even knew where I was. The standard procedure for guys with brain injuries is every morning you wake up, they ask you, ‘Do you know your name? Do you know where you’re at?’ The first memory I have is them asking and me answering, but I don’t know how many times they asked before that.”
Cameron Kerr ’09 faced his homecoming from Afghanistan five years later with a clearer head but no less daunting a challenge. Wide awake in his hospital bed for nine hours after his first surgery, he didn’t bother thinking about how things might have gone differently if the Afghan soldier he was training hadn’t stepped on an improvised explosive device or if he hadn’t rushed to the soldier’s aid and stepped on one himself. Kerr just looked down at the empty space where his lower left leg used to be.
“I made a decision that night,” says Kerr, who received the Purple Heart for his actions. “It was like, ‘OK, my leg’s gone. That’s a fact. It’s not going to grow back. So what’s going to be different?’ I thought, ‘Well, showering will be different, putting on pants, walking.’ But then I started thinking about what’s going to be better. I thought, ‘OK, I’m never going to have to fold socks again—that’s a plus.’ I just realized there was no point in thinking about the past, so I was going to focus on the future.”
The Next Battle
For Toews and Kerr, that next battle was recovery. After two months at the National Naval Medical Center learning to separate reality from false memories and undergoing numerous surgeries, including a craniotomy that left him with half a skull for eight months, Toews headed for outpatient therapy at a polytrauma rehabilitation center near his home in Kingsburg, Calif. There, he underwent three weeks of medical procedures, memory tests and physical-therapy sessions that included learning to walk and then run on a treadmill while wearing what he calls a “silly-looking helmet” to protect his brain. Next came more than a year’s worth of more surgeries, battles with intense migraine headaches and more physical therapy to overcome a nagging paralysis in his right hand.
Yet these problems actually helped Toews process the abrupt shift from war zone to home life—a transition that leaves many veterans reeling. “I don’t recommend everyone go out and get a brain injury, but that did help me,” Toews says with a chuckle. “My injuries always kept me focused on something. I needed to learn to walk. I needed to learn to eat. I needed this surgery or that surgery. Always having that next objective—that was important.”
“As a soldier you’re trained to think externally; then when you’re home injured, all of a sudden the focus is all on you,” Kerr explains. “Suddenly, [Sen.] John Kerry and all these distinguished visitors want to talk to you. You have to be careful that you don’t let it go to your head and start thinking, ‘I’m special. I deserve this.’ Because it’s going to end at some point, and then you have to figure out what’s next.”
The tendency to revere and then quickly forget veterans has been a recurring trend throughout U.S. history. “It’s tempting to buy into the rhetoric that surrounds thanking veterans and applauding at the airports,” says Diamant. “That might make it seem as if veterans are going to have an easy road, but history shows that doesn’t last.”
“Just being home was the biggest culture shock ever,” says Kerr, who’d served as a second and then first lieutenant for two years after going through ROTC at Dickinson. “One minute you’re leading a platoon of soldiers in one of the most dangerous parts of the world, and the next minute you’re home safe with your family and friends. I felt bad leaving my guys and getting out early. I just wanted to be back with my platoon. I wanted to finish my job. It’s like when you see border collies and someone takes away the sheep. The dogs just go insane.”
To stave off that insanity, Kerr sought out his next mission. In March he joined polar explorer and environmental activist Robert Swan and a global team of 72 scientists, entrepreneurs and citizen leaders on a two-week expedition to Antarctica promoting sustainability. Since returning, he’s been interning with the Department of Defense in Washington, D.C., and training for and then running in the Boston Marathon.
Now he’s again focused his attention on the environment, teaming with Swan and other expedition members to launch a mobile, green-powered “e-base” in Qatar to help spur sustainable development in that region. After that, he plans to run in the Dubai Marathon in January to raise money for another wounded veteran to journey to Antarctica with Swan’s team in 2013.
For Toews that feeling of “now what?” came a few weeks after his last surgery, a procedure replacing half his skull with prosthetic bone. He sat in a physical-therapy office staring at his paralyzed right hand, took a deep breath and—finally—made a fist. With his hand still clenched and a wide grin across his face, he dashed into the hall to show all the other patients what he had accomplished. Physically, his recovery was complete. “Yeah, that was a good day!” Toews recalls with a smile.
He started his search at Dickinson, where he enrolled in 2008 through the Veteran’s Affairs Vocational Rehabilitation program. As an older student whose recent past included heavy combat rather than senior week at the shore, the sociology and environmental-studies double major admits that he entered the classroom with a sizeable chip on his shoulder. “I remember being on guard, ready to pounce, just waiting for a discussion on politics or the military,” he says. “But I was surprised at how open-minded the students were.”
“That was tough,” Toews recalls. “I thought I’d left that behind, but I knew this was something none of the other students had seen before. So I kind of put on my professional face and did what I could to help us all get through it.”
insulation in post-Katrina New Orleans, but always finding something worth fighting for long after he’d left the fighting behind.
A New Reality
With time then, both Toews and Kerr have found ways to plug into life after wartime. Like the veterans before them and the many that will come after, they’ve found that coming home is a process that only begins with those first steps back on U.S. soil. Even now, as Toews looks back on those coma-induced dreams of a daughter who once seemed so real, he knows that full recovery remains elusive.
“They say with head injuries you’re never recovered; you’re always recovering,” says Toews. He shakes his head, smiling as he looks into the distance to gather his words. And though those words are tied to his unique perspective on how the brain can manipulate perception, it’s easy to imagine them coming from the mouth of any veteran adjusting to a day-to-day reality so far removed from the battlefield: “Even now—every once in a while—there’s kind of a weird feeling, like, ‘Is this real?’”
Published July 1, 2012