FORT BELVOIR, Va. — Air Force Master Sgt. Earl Covel had gone through just about every treatment anyone could think of for the brain injuries he sustained over his 12 deployments — even the hyberbaric chamber. Nothing seemed to be working very well.
“They were just throwing spears,” doing the best they could, he said.
Then a friend told him about the National Intrepid Center of Excellence at Bethesda, Md., a facility dedicated to the treatment, diagnosis and research of mild traumatic brain injury and psychological health issues.
Covel was assigned “an army of providers,” he said, and his wife was encouraged to participate in the process. The team led Covel “off a very dark path,” he said.
But while hundreds of thousands of combat veterans are suffering from brain injuries, the NICoE can only treat about 250 servicemembers a year.
To help fill the gap, the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, which funded and built the NICoE, has embarked on a $100 million fundraising campaign to build at least nine NICoE satellite centers at bases around the country. On Wednesday, officials broke ground on the first two — at Fort Belvoir near Washington and at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
The satellite centers are a public-private partnership with the military. The bases will let the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund build the centers on base land, paid for solely with donations. Each center will cost about $11 million and take about a year to build. Once they’re done, the fund will turn them over to the military bases, said Richard Santulli, chairman of the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund.
The country owes a debt to the servicemembers who keep us safe, Santulli said, and funding and building the centers is “our way of paying that debt.”
The foundation has raised $25 million so far and will use the money for new centers as they raise it, said Bill White, CEO of Constellation Group, which is mounting the fundraising effort for the satellite centers.
“This is an urgent need,” he said. “I think we’re doing a lot more than we ever did, but it’s still not enough.”
The satellite centers will communicate with the main NICoE in Bethesda and allow the military to better treat a larger number of injured servicemembers, said Gen. Lloyd Austin III, vice chief of staff of the Army.
“The real power of these satellite centers will be the network they create,” Austin said.
Army Staff Sgt. Christopher Milo received brain injury treatment at the NICoE in Bethesda and is getting further treatment at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Like Covel, he said he had gone through the “whole gamut” of treatments before finding the center.
While other providers wanted to help, he said, the NICoE was “the first time I ever felt like a person as opposed to a patient.”
“It not that they heal you right away,” he said after the groundbreaking at Fort Belvoir. “It gives us light at the end of the tunnel.”
Milo now has a service dog, Nemo, who helps him let his guard down and has woken him up from nightmares. And the NICoE helped Milo’s wife as much as it did him, he said.
Covel agreed. The center gave his family a voice, he said.
“It was the first time someone really listened to my wife,” Covel said, adding that a therapist also worked with his 9-year-old son.
Covel said he was angry all the time, “a shell of a man.” Now, he sees significant progress.
“I look to the future for the first time,” he said.