Navy corpsman who was shot in the head is a study for PTSD
A heavy pack on her back, Holly Crabtree looked down the steep hill, wondering how she would get to the bottom.
Fresh off a train that took her and a group of other combat-wounded veterans to a remote river in Alaska, she hesitated for a moment.
The men she was with offered to help, but Crabtree, fiercely independent despite her injuries, brushed them off.
"The one thing that popped into my mind is, 'I am not a ... baby,' " says Crabtree. "Therefore, I got on my butt and just went down the hill -- like I am going to show everybody that sometimes, a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do, which is be a guy."
Crabtree, now 32, was a Navy corpsman when she was shot in the head while on an operation in Iraq with Navy SEALs in 2010. Not expected to live, she recovered, but was paralyzed on her right side and suffered a traumatic brain injury that affected her memory, speech and motor skills.
For her, sliding down the hill was an epiphany.
After an arduous two-year recovery that saw her languishing at the James A. Haley Veteran's Hospital, hopeless and depressed, it was the first time she had connected with her old self since nearly dying.
"It was like no holds barred," Crabtree now says. "Let's go."
But as Crabtree slid down the rocky hill, Dave Olson, a retired Navy captain from Palm Harbor, looked on with nervous anticipation.
The creator of the Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge, which brought Crabtree to Alaska with other wounded and a researcher to study post traumatic stress disorder, Olson was worried about her safety.
There was another concern. There were a lot of people who thought Crabtree was too frail to go.
Olson believed Crabtree would benefit from the trip. He had faith in her abilities and set up a system to ensure she would be protected. By bringing Crabtree to the wilderness, Olson put the future of his organization on the line.
Crabtree, an athletic rambunctious young woman from Washington State, grew up playing three sports and had the urge to serve her country. She enlisted in the Navy, rising to the rank of Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Petty Officer.
A quick study who spoke fluent Arabic and Japanese, Crabtree accompanied the SEALs because of her language skills.
On April 15, 2010, a bullet ripped through the left side of her helmet and into her brain.
"The first thing I remember after I woke up is that I was still in the Humvee," says Crabtree in a telephone interview from her home in Washington. "I was embarrassed. I thought I passed out from the heat."
Then she noticed her arms were covered in blood.
Those wounded in battle are flown out via helicopter and given a code based on their injury.
Crabtree was in such bad shape hers reflected a dire outcome.
The commanding officer of the 6th Medical Group at MacDill Air Force Base was on temporary duty to Iraq at the time and observed Crabtree's initial surgery, said Bob Silah, a retired Navy captain, who runs Operation Helping Hand.
The officer "said that she went through a six-hour operation and no one expected her to live," Silah says.
Surviving, says Crabtree, was just the beginning.
"Things were tough for a couple of years," she says.
Not happy with the treatment at Bethesda, Crabtree says her sister, Sarah Bonner, arranged for her to come to Haley.
But for a woman used to going on special operations missions, things were no easier in Tampa, Crabtree says. She was in pain. Had trouble moving on her own. Her brain injury affected her memory and ability to think.
"I wanted to snap my fingers and get better," says Crabtree. "I was going through depression so bad as well as trying to get better so hard I was hurting myself."
After about a year, Crabtree says she was so depressed over her lack of progress she began to wish the bullet that entered her brain took a different trajectory.
"I had a thought process of if that bullet had moved over an eighth of an inch, what would that have done to me?" she says. "I stopped eating. I wasn't hungry. The only thing that kept me going was my daughter, Leah."
Silah, whose organization helps care for the wounded and their families at Haley, eventually contributed $5,000 for Crabtree's trip.
Olson met Crabtree at an Operation Helping Hand dinner in the spring of 2011. "When I first saw her, she still had a sling on her arm and had challenges walking," says Olson. "She was paralyzed on the right side of her body and was getting emotionally disturbed because she couldn't remember things."
At the time, Olson was gearing up to take a group of wounded -- men missing limbs, a double-lung transplant -- on a mission to climb Mt. McKinley. The goal was to help the men overcome their limitations as well as research the affects of altitude and cold on prosthetics and transplanted lungs.
Crabtree wasn't ready for that trip, but Olson kept her in mind for another adventure. In addition to the wounded, it would include the first field study of post traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury.
Crabtree was eager to go, but Olson had to convince the VA and U.S. Special Operations Command's Care Coalition that she could handle the trip.
At first, not everybody was on board with the idea of Crabtree heading out to the wilds of Alaska.
"There was some pushback," says Olson.
The Care Coalition, which looks for innovative ways to help the wounded recuperate, was intrigued but wanted to know that Crabtree could handle the rigors, according to Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brian Hower, chief of community outreach for the coalition.
Hower likened Crabtree's condition to former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who was also shot in the head.
"There were concerns about taking her out of the VA" and into the wilderness, Hower says. "There are concerns about anyone who received a gunshot wound to the head. There are issues with balance. Memory is off at times."
Olson set up an elaborate plan to take care of Crabtree, including bringing along his wife, Teresa, a nurse. A helicopter was on constant standby.
On June 14, Crabtree left the hospital, headed for Alaska for two weeks.
Sliding down the hill was only the beginning of the challenges for Crabtree and the others.
There was no road for 50 miles. The Sustina River was cold and swift, with hanging branches and protruding logs. Any ground the pack rafters walked on was rocky, difficult to navigate, uncomfortable to sleep on. A driving rain soaked everyone.
But Crabtree persevered. Using her left hand, she set up her own tent. Shooting an AR-15, she managed to hit the target in a tight grouping, the first time she had fired a weapon since her injury.
Working with former Army Staff Sgt. Vic Thibeault, who lost his left hand to a grenade while in Iraq, she worked to navigate the river as part of a team; she rowed with her left arm, Thibeault with his right.
She lost her balance on the rocks and fell a few times, but the trip, she says, gave her the confidence to leave Haley and move to Washington, where she is medically retired and living with an uncle and her daughter, Leah, 6. Now she is training for the next big adventure -- climbing a glacier in Alaska.
Standing in front of a room full of people permanently scarred by war, Crabtree, whose close friends call her Hope, talks about her own struggle trying to recuperate.
"I was at the point where I'd given up hope," says Crabtree, speaking at the July Operation Helping Hand dinner. "I was doing that because I'd locked myself in a box."
Until the rafting trip.
"I took a chance and went on this trip and it turned out to be the most awesome and therapeutic thing I could ever walk into. I don't even feel like the same person," she says. "So I encourage anyone and everyone to take the step outside that box and try something. Now that I have that faith in myself, it's like there are countless people I can have that faith for."
The audience stands and erupts in applause. People shake her hand.
The mother of one of those patients has a request.
"Please come talk to my son," she says.