Learning life again with the help of Wounded Warriors
By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 12, 2013
Army Sgt. Jeremy Muncert made it back from Iraq, haunted by what he had seen and endured but otherwise uninjured. But a car crash back home left him with one of the signature wounds of the current wars: traumatic brain injury.
Muncert, a passenger in a car whose driver had been drinking, went through the windshield when the car wrapped around a utility pole at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. His head hit the pole; his injuries were grave.
The military policeman who once taught Iraqis to hunt al-Qaida emerged from a coma 20 days later, partially blind and deaf and unable to remember his family.
His mother, Susan, quit her job to be his full-time caretaker and strained to keep up with cooking, cleaning and the special needs related to his severe brain injuries.
“I had to learn how to walk, talk, eat, breath again,” he said, describing how he slowly progressed from a wheelchair to a cane. All the while, Muncert felt isolated and alone, drifting farther from his former life as a soccer player, BMX bicycle competitor and gym-honed Army warrior.
The crash robbed him of his independence, but a Wounded Warrior Project pilot program is giving it back.
The non-profit group’s Independence Program pairs veterans with moderate to severe TBI and other neurological conditions with specialists in their community who can help them pursue interests and reconnect with their pre-injury lives.
In 2012, Muncert was among the first veterans accepted into the free program that began one year earlier with 10 participants. By this fall, more than 100 wounded warriors could be served.
Muncert, 28, meets a couple of times each week with local specialists who understand his disability and take him to work out, go shopping and attend community-college classes where he is studying business administration. He has become physically fit enough to earn a medal in the National Veterans Valor Games for the disabled, and he has explored adaptive kayaking and fly fishing. He hopes to open a gun shop one day, and start a family.
“It’s made me more happy, more human, I guess,” said Muncert, who now lives in Clayton, N.C. “I’m able to get out in public and feel somewhat normal again.”
There is also less pressure on his family.
“It has provided much-needed respite time for myself on a weekly basis, which makes life a little more manageable,” Susan Muncert said.
The Department of Veterans Affairs provides home health care to some families, she said, but that does little for the complex needs of veterans with TBI who want to pursue independence and activities outside the home.
That is where the Wounded Warrior Project steps in. A treatment team goes to interview vets and their families about needs and goals. The team then works with the family and local support professionals to develop a personal plan.
Wounded veterans often battle a raft of problems to become independent, requiring a specialized approach, said Helaine Bilos, a brain injury specialist and independent contractor who helped co-found the program. Muncert said he struggled with anger about the crash and directed it at anyone who could do things he no longer could.
“When you have a traumatic brain injury, there are often physical and emotional challenges,” Bilos said. “It is a complex injury. You have to pull all of the pieces together and find a way to help someone be successful.”
Each wounded veteran in the program has a personal definition of what it means to live a full life again.
“This is not a cookie-cutter approach,” WWP senior program specialist Anna Frese said. “We want to find what drives you... Then we build a program around that.”
For Muncert, the anger has melted away. He is motivational speaker for troops against making poor choices and is an outspoken advocate for his brothers in arms.
“I have many challenges still ahead of me,” he said. “However, I do not look at my injuries and deficits as disabilities. I look at them as strengths to make me stronger and to make me a better person.”
Retired Army Sgt. Jeremy Muncert, left, is seen here working with a specialist provided by the Wounded Warrior Project's new Independence Program at the gym near his house in Clayton, N.C. The program pairs specialists with wounded or injured troops suffering from TBI injuries to help them attain a greater independence and return to their normal lives as much as possible. Muncert was critically injured in a 2009 car crash in Hawaii. Now, through the program, he is able to go to the gym, fly fishing, adaptive kayaking and even college business courses. The program is in the process of transitioning from the pilot phase to opening up to an increased number of troops.
PHOTO COURTESY MUNCERT FAMILY