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August 18th, 2009
06:00 AM ET

Marine veteran fights an invisible battle

By Caitlin Hagan
CNN Medical Associate Producer

Matthew Brown, 24, was shot in the leg in Falluja, Iraq.

Matthew Brown, 24, was shot in the leg in Falluja, Iraq.

Since the day a sniper shot Matthew Brown, 24, in the leg in Falluja, Iraq, life has never been the same (watch video). It was Veterans Day 2004, and Brown was trying to locate the shooter who was targeting one of his fellow Marines. But the sniper found Brown first.

"Nothing can describe it. You're taking a small projectile moving roughly 2,800 feet per second and stopping it on a dime, so there's searing heat, shooting pain, just pain everywhere," Brown says.

A priest gave him his last rites before he was airlifted out of Falluja. "They weren't really sure where I was shot because there was blood everywhere," he says.

Many blood transfusions and surgeries later, Brown awoke from a medically induced coma. This time, he was in Maryland.

"It was very disorienting, very confusing," Brown remembers. "I couldn't understand why I couldn't move my leg. I kept reaching for my sidearm."

He still had both legs and feet but had suffered extensive nerve damage. At 20 years old, Brown had to learn how to walk again. But there was more to his injury than his new physical limitations. One of every five veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan has post-traumatic stress disorder. Matthew Brown is one of them.

"Cars backfiring make me very jumpy,” he says. “People behind me, loud noises, constantly on alert looking around – is that McDonald's bag on the side of the road a bomb or just a bag? Is someone trying to get me?”

What started out as a prescription to take one to two painkillers every six hours eventually spiraled in to something more serious. Brown began abusing his medications. "Oxycontin, methadone, Percocet, Vicodin, once in a while Valium, " he says. "There would be some times where I would crush up a methadone....snort that, then chew a Percocet, then swallow a Vicodin, just so they would all hit at different times and the high continued."

And on top of the drugs, he was drinking heavily. "I was just, indirectly, I guess just trying to end it. End the pain, for a brief moment or forever."

Brown says he doesn't remember much from that time but he knows the exact moment when he hit rock bottom. Shortly after that night, he says he was able to speak up and for the first time, ask for help to deal with his PTSD.

"It took a while...to man up and get the help, " he says. "It was terrifying, knowing that I was going to go meet a complete stranger and spill my heart. I don't think I've ever told anyone everything before."

"Right now, the VA [Veterans Administration] is reporting over 50,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have some sort of substance abuse or alcohol issue," says Tom Tarantino, with the advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America or IAVA. "Keep in mind, only 44 percent of current or former veterans even use the VA, so the actual number is far, far bigger."

Brown says communicating with fellow veterans is what best helped him manage his PTSD. "Really the only people who understand PTSD are the ones who have it," says Brown. Tarantino agrees. "No one can talk to a vet like another vet. No one can understand what someone's going through, what a combat vet is going through, other than someone who has also seen combat."

That's why the IAVA has created a social networking site specifically for combat veterans to share their experiences in dealing with PTSD. Community of Vets is a site where veterans can ask one another questions about dealing with family life, job stress, alcohol or drug abuse, and treatment options.

Tarantino believes that kind of open communication is crucial for someone with PTSD. "These are wounds. You're actually a stronger service member, you're a stronger soldier if you say, ‘Hey I'm having a problem. I need help. Let's get me fixed so I can get back into the fight," he says. "We do an excellent job of training people how to be warriors. We don't do a very good job in the military and as a society of bringing them back from warriors to citizens."

Brown believes he has benefited from talking with other veterans through the IAVA site. His darkest days seem to be behind him and the future looks bright. He's married and has two children, a boy and a girl.

"Life is still a battle with PTSD," he says. "I now realize that I don't want to be a number on a piece of paper, I want to live to be 70 or 80 – I want to grow up to see my son graduate from boot camp or high school or college....Same with my daughter."

"Now I'm trying to live up to what the people that died could have been. Where they would want to be."

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soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Laura B

    I too have PTSD, tho not from service duty, and I would like to say that PTSD IS able to be cured, if not substantially helped. Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, CO has many soldiers returning from Iraq who have gone through trauma counseling utilizing a process called E.M.D.R. (look at http://www.emdr.com/studies.htm for questions), which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). One of the two main elements of EMDR treatment is 'bilateral stimulation' of each of the two brain hemispheres; the other element is having a counselor well trained in this process.

    This treatment is the only method that will truly work on PTSD – I can attest to this – and there are many counselors throughout the nation who are trained in this procedure. My own counselor deals with severe trauma patients and has treated many PTSD patients, both civilian and military. The results are amazing.

    It was so sad to hear Matthew Brown's story with what sounded like his belief that there was to be no help or hope for the future for his PTSD. There is hope and help! Look up EMDR and get a well trained counselor!!!

    Laura

    August 18, 2009 at 15:09 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Karen

      EMDR is a highly effective but underutilized tool in fighting PTSD. Unfortunately, many therapists either are not up to date on current treatment modalities or see it as some kind of 'fringe' idea. When it comes to helping these warriors get readjusted to society, every possible avenue should be explored. There is a solution for each and every one that needs help. Never give up, never quit asking. Your country owes you this much. Thank you all for your sacrifices for those of us that have the luxury of staying at home while you fight on our behalf.

      September 20, 2010 at 13:18 | Report abuse |
  2. Diana Brown

    I am the mother of this brave Marine. We have fought his battle with PTSD as a family. The local VA was not prepared to handle our young soldiers and marines returning back from war. Dumping money and prescription drugs on them is not the answer. My son like many marines went from living with his parents, going to High School and then enlisting into the Military. There he was trained to defend his country. He sustained an injury that left him unable to do his job. As I would say it "They kicked him to the curb with a retirement and a fist full of medications". There was not any follow up. Matthew did not seek mental health from the VA for over a year for PTSD. Medications just about killed him. Matthew has been lucky to have a family willing to be involved and on top of what is going on. I thank you for speaking with Matthew and making people aware of our returning soldiers and marines with PTSD.

    August 18, 2009 at 18:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Chris Telencio

    I know matt.He's an out standing guy and a great father.i could not ask for a better neighbor.He in other words is a real life hero

    August 18, 2009 at 20:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Jefe

    Good for you, Matthew, for winning out the battles. To get back on your feet, and then to kick the habits (which anyone put on painkillers long-term would have – its a matter of who is able to get past it).

    I think the social networking for vets with PTSD is a great thing. A good friend of mine who is a marine is now working primarily as a counselor for returning vets. He says he loves what he is doing, and that they could use 100x the number of guys they have doing his job. This sounds like a good way to do just that.

    Blessings to you and your family.

    August 20, 2009 at 15:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Father Ron Camarda

    I am the priest that anointed Matthew in Iraq. I remember the day I called his mother on 16 December 2009. I didn't know if he was alive, so I asked to speak with him. His mother was very excited and told me how thrilled Matthew would be to talk to me. You see, I had his St. Michael Medal that he is wearing and I wanted to send it to him. He had told the Commandant of the Marine Corps who was to present him with the Purple Heart in Bethesda, "Sir, this is really nice, but what I really want is my St. Michael Medal back. Can you help me get it?"

    I wrote the story in my book, TEAR IN THE DESERT, which is being made into a movie. There is always hope for Marines are always Semper Fi!!!
    http://www.tearinthedesert.com

    September 19, 2009 at 22:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Abigail Markelwitz

    In a Response to Chris, yes he is a great father and yes a hero. hes my brother inlaw and I look up to him. Hes a great guy to be around and funny yet sarcastic. One day I look to be a marine. and become a hero just like Matt is now and always will be.

    October 4, 2012 at 09:32 | Report abuse | Reply

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