By Patricia Kime
Military Times Staff writer
May. 14, 2014 - 10:20AM
Marine Cpl. Jacob Schick was an early casualty of the Iraq War, his body blown apart by an anti-tank mine in Anbar province in 2004.
The force of the explosion threw Schick through the soft top of his unarmored Humvee, blew off his right leg, shredded his left and ripped off portions of his arm and fingers.
His physical injuries were repaired as well as they could be in 46 operations. But it took years for Schick to find treatment for the traumatic brain injury he sustained because he had landed — 30 feet from his vehicle — on his head.
“For a long time, I didn’t know I had a TBI. I became a drug addict after I got out of the hospital, abusing prescription medications for two years. When I quit those, I found I had this other battle to face, and here I was having to accept this reality without an outlet,” he said.
A colleague told him about a program at the Center for BrainHealthat the University of Texas at Dallas designed to retrain the brain. The center claimed that its Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training, or SMART, program improved performance, mood and strategic thinking — with the goal of helping veterans recover their natural ability to function.
Schick enrolled 18 months ago.
“I was very skeptical because I’ve been told by a lot of people, a lot of entities, ‘Hey, come see us. We can help you,’ and they couldn’t,” Schick said.
Developed by neuroscientists including center chief director Sandra Bond Chapman, SMART is a cognitive program designed to enhance mental productivity by teaching patients to focus on “big picture” creative thinking instead of minutiae.
It instructs veterans to avoid multitasking and information overload and instead focus on essential tasks and decisions.
“Who doesn’t want to become intellectually stronger, whether you are in health or injured?” Chapman said during the inaugural Brain Health Summit in Washington, D.C., on April 28.
He acknowledged that the training is not perfect, and he also noted that many veterans have very severe head injuries. Still, he said the brain has “so much capacity” that “some degrees of improvement are possible.”
Retired Navy SEAL Lt. Morgan Luttrell became a fan after seeking help for a TBI from a 2009 helicopter crash.
In an accident off the Virginia coast that killed one person and injured eight,Luttrell broke his back and was “out of it” for about a month, he said, not remembering what had happened or knowing he was in a hospital.
He spent months recuperating physically but felt his brain was constantly “in a fog.”
Then a roommate told him about SMART.
“We’re great at putting the human body back together,” Luttrell said. “But what was plaguing me was what was happening upstairs.”
He completed SMART training two years ago — and deployed several more times to Afghanistan. “I was able to move on and continue to do great things for my country,” he said.
Service members have sustained 294,172 brain injuries since 2000, according to the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center. More than 82 percent are considered mild TBIs, or concussions.
Chapman said these injuries, as well as cognitive changes due to age and some brain diseases, can and must be treated or addressed, through programs like SMART and further research.
“We must stop accepting or expecting decline in performance that keeps us from being independent. This is not inevitable or insurmountable,” she said.
The Center for BrainHealth is recruiting veterans and service members with post-traumatic stress disorder and concussions for several studies. Information is available on the center’s website.
Schick and Luttrell say they are testaments to the center’s emerging understanding of brain reconditioning and regeneration. In fact, Schick now works at the center .
And Luttrell continues to do his SMART exercises daily, recommending the program to fellow troops or anyone with cognitive changes related to brain injury.
“It’s what makes Morgan function,” he quipped. “When you stop, you crawl down the rabbit hole, and what’s the point in life?”