Veteran Mark Brogan overcoming invisible scars of war
Knoxville News-Sentinel, Tenn.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — When the war broke out, Mark Brogan worried he’d miss the action.
“Nobody wants to go to war, but nobody wants to miss out,” he said. “We all expected it to be a short war like last time. It didn’t quite work out that way.”
He worried for nothing. The action came to him.
Brogan, 32, survived a suicide bombing in April 2006 that blew him across an Iraqi marketplace and killed the man next to him. The blast cost him the hearing in one ear, 60 percent hearing loss in the other ear, a chunk of his brain and half his skull.
Doctors said he’d be a quadriplegic the rest of his life. Brogan’s been proving them wrong ever since.
Even so, he still struggles with the aftereffects of traumatic brain injury, one of the most common yet least understood types of injury to occur during the Iraq War. More than 253,000 U.S. veterans across the armed services have reported some form of brain injury in the past decade, according to Department of Defense statistics — as many as 48,000 of them moderate to severe. Veterans’ advocates argue the true number might be even higher.
Brogan usually spends at least three days out of any given week in therapy — physical therapy, vision therapy, cognitive therapy — at centers and clinics around Knoxville. He calls it his new full-time job.
Most of Brogan’s injuries aren’t apparent, even up close. A plastic plate covers the once-gaping hole in his head. He looks about like he did in photos from before the bombing, except for the hearing aids. He speaks regularly to national conferences on veterans’ hearing loss and brain injuries and serves as commander of the local chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart.
But the simple, everyday tasks he used to take for granted now sometimes take all of his effort.
His eyes don’t always work together, causing blind spots and double vision. The damage to his inner ear makes his balance shaky.
Doctors removed part of his right temporal lobe — the part of the brain that controls hearing, sight and short-term memory — in the effort to save his life seven years ago. He suffers occasional epileptic-style seizures as a result.
Sometimes he forgets to eat.
“I can concentrate on a task for about an hour,” he said. “I’m like the out-of-shape, fat guy who gets around the track one time and starts panting. There’s times when you have to wonder, would it have been better to lose a leg or an arm? At least they can replace that.”
Eager for action
Brogan grew up in Kingsport and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. He considered law school but joined the Army instead.
“Eight months to the day from graduation, I’m sitting in recon training at Fort Knox,” he said. “We were taking the tanks out to train when we heard the news the bombing had started in Iraq. I was sitting on top of the tank afraid I wouldn’t finish training in time to go. I didn’t want to be the young lieutenant who got there too late.”
The war waited for him. Brogan received a commission as a captain in the 172nd Stryker brigade, a reorganized unit trained specifically for urban warfare.
He deployed to Iraq in August 2005 — first to Mosul, then to the Anbar province near the Syrian border.
Brogan survived two roadside bombings and a sniper attack unhurt before arriving in Rawah, a small fishing village on the Iraqi side of the Euphrates River.
“It had the only bridge across the Euphrates for miles,” he recalled. “We were searching Bedouins every day. We’d spent time helping the Border Patrol in Mexico before we left, so that turned out to be good practice. Nobody was checking the fishing boats on the water, though, so they were probably ferrying all kinds of stuff back and forth. In this little town there was a combat outpost where we were stationed, really just a little bit of wire around a hole in the sand. We got mortared a lot.”
‘A wall of fire’
As part of the unit’s mission, Brogan worked with local officials to recruit police officers. Authorities had set up a recruitment station in the village market on April 11, 2006, as Brogan oversaw a foot patrol.
“I don’t actually remember any of this day,” he said. “It’s gone. I remember that morning. I remember sending a report to the commander. We were in the market when the platoon sergeant called me and said, ‘Things are too quiet.’ I remember thinking the same thing. I told him, ‘Let’s leave this place.’ ”
They didn’t get out fast enough. A suicide bomber crept up behind them and hit the detonator as they headed out of the bazaar.
Brogan’s memories after that point turn cloudy.
“One sergeant had turned around to tell me something,” he said. “I don’t know what. He’s still alive, but he won’t talk to me about it. The guy just came around the corner and blew himself up. It looked like something out of a movie, just a wall of fire coming down the hallway. The sergeant to my immediate rear was killed instantly. It ripped my helmet off and blew a chunk of Kevlar out of it. My arm was really damaged. One of my sergeants told me later he felt like he was talking to a ghost.”
A helicopter carried Brogan to an emergency field hospital in Balad, Iraq. Doctors there split his skull to relieve pressure from his swollen brain, already bulging to the size of a basketball, and found a piece of shrapnel in his spine.
A casualty notification officer told Brogan’s wife, Sunny, her husband would most likely be brain-dead and on permanent life support.
“They told her she needed to make the decision whether to let me go,” Brogan said. “She told them, ‘If he can survive the flight to Walter Reed (Medical Center in Washington), we’ll make the decision there.’ ”
Nickels and tiles
Brogan spent the next 17 days in a coma on a ventilator. He vaguely remembers dreams from that time of strangling, of being trapped at the bottom of a coal mine shaft, of leading soldiers into battle against the British in the American Revolution.
“My brain was trying to process what was going on,” he said. “It was the end of May before I have any solid memories. Every day was like ‘Groundhog Day’ — I’d forget everything that happened the day before.”
By summer he was learning to walk again, wearing a padded foam helmet and counting tiles on the hallway floor as he worked his way up to a few steps a day.
“I would walk three or four tiles and then get back in the wheelchair,” he said. “Half my head was still gone. They’d ask me simple questions, like how many nickels are in a dollar. I couldn’t answer it. I couldn’t figure it out.”
Step by step, he improved. By July he walked with a cane. By October, surgeons began rebuilding his skull.
On Feb. 20, 2007, an officer handed Brogan a retirement flag and wished him good luck. He was 26 years old.
Carving out a life
Brogan’s time at Walter Reed did little to prepare him and his wife for the bureaucratic labyrinth of dealing with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Sunny Brogan, a former loan officer, devoted herself to paperwork and caring for her husband as a new full-time job.
Nearly seven years after Brogan was wounded, she hasn’t returned to work. She reminds him when to take this medication or that one, drives him to therapy and back, and watches for seizures. A VA stipend for caregivers helps cover their expenses.
Just last year Brogan suffered a seizure that sent him back to Walter Reed for four weeks. He doesn’t like to think where he’d be without her.
“She asked me, ‘If I died tomorrow, what would you do?’ I don’t know,” he said. “She has to remind me to eat. We love each other, but being with somebody all the time, how do you carve out your own lives?”
He passes the time between therapy sessions by volunteering with veterans’ advocacy groups. He’s testified before Congress and taken part in sports tournaments for disabled veterans. He jokes that he somehow became the national spokesman for military hearing loss.
“Most people have heard of traumatic brain injury by now but don’t know what it is,” he said. “I’m trying to find little things I can do with my time that are rewarding, that give me a sense of purpose and get me out of the house. I want to try to go back to school and do something. It’s like I’m in the process of trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. What can I handle? I’m trying to learn sign language, too, because if I go deaf in my other ear I’m not going to have a choice.”
At home, he resumed a childhood hobby of making and painting models — airplanes, tanks, even Stryker fighting vehicles like the ones he rode in Iraq. The tiny pieces help him practice concentration.
Music helps, too. He plays the guitar and the piano, sometimes while his wife paints. He knows the classics but prefers rock — Metallica’s “Sanctuary” or Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
“When I started, I couldn’t get my hands to do two separate things at once,” Brogan said. “It’s really helped.”
He sees others with worse brain injuries and tries to speak up for them — veterans who’ve lost the ability to control their anger, men in their 20s who can’t even eat without assistance. He sees old friends from his military days and remembers times past.
“I keep seeing my friends move up and on,” he said. “That’s hard for me to accept. It’s still hard to know I’m not ever going to be Capt. Brogan again, leading 30 guys and making decisions while the bullets are flying. Having kids is going to be hard, and I want kids.”
Ask whether the war was worth the sacrifice, and he hesitates.
“When I was over there, I really hoped we were doing a lot of good,” Brogan said. “Now with all the violence, I have doubts and concerns about it. We all went over there. We served, we sacrificed, and we did what we could. When it all comes out in the end, I hope it’ll be the right thing. If not, it’ll sting. It’ll hurt. The Vietnam War guys had to reconcile a lot. I don’t want to be sitting around in 20 years, asking ‘What did we do that for?’
“All you can hope for is that because of you, somebody will have a good life. Was it worth it? I’m not sure. All I know is I signed up to go put my life on the line, and we did what we were told to do.”
Next month marks the seventh anniversary of the bombing that ended his military career. Wounded veterans sometimes celebrate such occasions as their “Alive Day,” complete with friends and toasts. Brogan says he’ll skip the party this year.
“We used to celebrate it, but now it’s kind of bittersweet,” he said. “This is just our life now.”