An infantryman in the 10th Mountain Division, Timm and his unit received intelligence about a slew of car bombs in the environs of Baghdad. Out on patrol in their up-armored Humvee — a humvee that is bullet-resistant and can withstand most minor explosions without damage — they scouted the streets and stopped frequently to do surveillance and interact with the locals.
The car had a long wire snaking out of its front grill and up through the driver’s window. It was about 10 feet away. Timm focused his gun on it. Then time stopped and a roaring ball of flame, dust, and ash enveloped their Humvee. The enormous military vehicle tipped five feet and almost rocked over. Like a handful of dice, Timm and his men were jumbled around the vehicle. Thrown from his seat, Timm hit his head on the ammunition along one side of the truck. The blast then deflected off the Humvee and hit a wall, crumbling it into a pile of stones.
There were no “serious” injuries, according to Timm. The gunner suffered flash burns on his face, another soldier sustained some surface shrapnel wounds on the back of his head, Timm’s head and body ached. But everyone was conscious, and no one was losing significant amounts of blood
Timm started feeling symptoms of a brain injury right after the blast. He experienced severe headaches every day for months. He felt nauseated, especially when he first woke up, and he had fits of anger and moodiness. But being overseas with these types of symptoms and being at home with them is quite different.
“Sure, you get angry, but you’re in combat. You’re always on, the adrenaline pumping. Who’s going to point you out as excessively angry when your job is to kill and defend?” Timm asks rhetorically. “And as for the headaches, well, when you’re in the desert, you think it’s heatstroke. You tell yourself it’s heatstroke, you minimize things … and you drink more water.” He joked that drinking more water is the Army’s remedy for most everything.
Once home, Timm started to notice — or accept — his symptoms in earnest. The headaches persisted as did the dizziness and nausea. It was at work and in school that his deficits started to impact him the most.
After retiring, Timm met up with some of his buddies from the 10th Mountain Division. Comparing notes, he found that they also had symptoms of mild TBI — problems with headaches, memory, planning, behavior, and emotions. “They told me to go to the Veterans Administration (VA) or everything would just get worse,” he says.
It took twelve months of being “poked and prodded and tested, tested, tested” to get diagnosed with TBI. Doctors also diagnosed him with PTSD, back injury, and tinnitus (ringing in the ears). Like many soldiers then, Timm had never had baseline neuropsychological testing before he deployed.
Although Timm was finding his way back into civilian life — in school and with his wife, child, and friends, he came to understand, however, that the memory of war is never left behind.
“Every once in a while, you go into the dark room,” says Timm, trying to explain his bouts with depression, one in particular after he learned three soldiers whom he’d mentored had all been killed in action. “When the days are dark, they are very dark.”
Although incredibly difficult at times, Timm found that the way out of the “dark room” was to reach out to other veterans who understood what he was going through.
“I found that connecting with others who ‘got it’ was my way to flip the switch, my way to get my hands on that the flashlight. My flashlight out of that dark space.”
Now a TBI field contractor for the Washington Department of Veterans Affairs, Timm helps other vets like himself navigate the college environment and raises awareness among staff and civilians on campus. This past year, he travelled to 32 different colleges to teach staff, faculty, and students (vets and civilians) about TBI and the ways it can affect a student’s work and personal life.
Timm knows that as long as he keeps reaching out and connecting with others — he and his fellow vets will find their way.
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