By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on July 4, 2010 1:50 AM
Air Force Master Sgt. Brian Volk, left, places a pin on the hat of former Army Sgt. Harry Girlock during Volk's visit to ReNu Life, an assisted-living facility for people suffering from traumatic brain injury, Tuesday.
Their bond seemed to take hold almost instantly, an airman and the two former soldiers he first came into contact with Tuesday.
The men's connection does, after all, run far deeper than their respective years of service to a country each loves.
But just what brought Air Force Master Sgt. Brian Volk and former Army Sgts. Harry Girlock and Alan Monteath together this week at ReNu Life -- a 24-bed assisted-living facility for men and women suffering from traumatic brain injury -- is something most who watch them interact would never be able to see.
You have to get them talking to understand that their struggles are, in many ways, the same -- even if the extent of their injuries is far different.
Looking at Volk, a towering figure with broad shoulders, you would never guess that he loses his balance and sometimes falls when he closes his eyes -- that he takes meticulous notes during meetings to ensure he remembers the little things.
And watching Monteath walk the halls of his current home, you would likely never know that the man who once trained soldiers to fight in the desert can't remember dates -- that the dark sunglasses he wears are often hiding blank stares.
Of the three, Girlock is the only one who really looks injured. He remained slouched in a wheelchair during much of that several hour visit.
But you could sense, as Volk sat there beside him, that the men see their limitations as shared ones, despite their contrasting physical appearances.
Maybe it was the way the airman called Girlock "brother" as he placed a hand on his shoulder that revealed to onlookers just how tight the men's bond had become in the time they spent sharing stories -- or how Volk didn't flinch when the once-able-bodied soldier gave his best salute.
Either way, it seemed clear neither would willingly forget that moment -- even if the mind, as it often does for those who suffer from a TBI, would, perhaps, map a different destiny.
Before June 25, 1996, Volk was confident in the path he chose as a younger man.
"When I joined the military, it was about that flag -- the patriots who served before me and with me," he said.
But when a terrorist attack unfolded at Saudi Arabia's Khobar Towers, life, in a blast, changed for the airman.
"They skirted the perimeter of the base and parked (a sewage truck packed with explosives) at an area where the fence was only 75 yards from a building," Volk said. "They basically put all those chemicals in the air, you know, they busted the tanker open, got everything up in the air, and then had a secondary explosion. ... It was basically a fertilizer bomb," he said. "I was 150 yards from where the center of the bomb was and it still threw me about (10 feet).
"When I hit the wall, I hit with my head right here," he added, running a finger along his forehead. "There were about 20 minutes where I don't really remember what was going on, but to my knowledge, I don't think I blacked out."
So when he finally came to, Volk, seeing no injury beyond cuts created by flying glass, took action.
"We patched ourselves up, my roommate and I, and for some reason, we grabbed our stuff and ... were going against the grain of everybody, and eventually found the building near where the epicenter was," he said. "We started going through the building and went all the way to the top. We found two people in there ... one we took out on a door and one we took out on a blanket. The one guy, I actually had my finger in his heart because the glass had completely severed his ... I mean, he was completely open. You'll never forget that. I'm kind of shaking thinking about it."
But the most lasting side effect of what occurred that day, the airman would not realize until weeks later.
"I started having memory problems and I had balance problems. I would close my eyes and turn around in the shower when I was rinsing my hair, and I would fall down," Volk said. "I couldn't figure out what it was. ... What would have helped me was coming forward."
But he lived in fear of what the doctors might find, so much so that he buried the memory of that blow to the head.
His life was, after all, defined, in many ways, by his service. And coming forward could mean a discharge.
So instead of seeking treatment, he looked for ways to compensate for his waning memory and the physical limitations that were starting to surface.
"I told myself that the memory thing was old age. I mean, it sounds bad, but I just figured, 'You know, I'm getting older. Who knows what I've gone through, whether it was an Anthrax shot or whatever else they have stuck me with over the years,'" he said. "And I just chalked the rest of it up to service to my country."
He started taking notes at meetings and began carrying a digital recorder.
And when he closed his eyes, he braced himself so he would not fall.
"I'm good as long as I can see. The minute I close my eyes or it gets dark outside, my capability to be able to equalize and balance myself goes away," Volk said. "For most people, if things are normal, your inner ears are your balance. For me, I have to use my eyes."
But until a post-deployment evaluation in 2006, more than 10 years after he hit that wall, the airman "had no idea what was going on."
"After about the third visit, (the evaluator) said, 'Have you been evaluated for a traumatic brain injury or PTSD?' I said, 'No. That's the stuff that happens to Army guys, you know, or Marines,'" Volk said. "She said, 'Well, you were hit by a vehicle-borne (Improvised Explosive Device) ... and you were thrown against a wall.'"
A CAT scan confirmed what she believed upon meeting with the airman.
Volk had sustained a TBI.
But even now, he feels like "one of the lucky ones."
"I'm very fortunate that my (injury) is minor," Volk said. "There are plenty of guys right now at Fort Bragg that I go through therapy with that have had open head injuries. Pieces of their head are missing. ... That's what keeps me going every day."
And so does meeting men like Girlock and Monteath.
"This place is phenomenal," the airman said shortly before he left the ReNu Life facility. "Any time you meet somebody who is going through some of the things you're going through ... it helps. That's what it's all about."
Unlike their Air Force counterpart, Girlock and Monteath did not suffer their injuries in combat.
Girlock was simply trying to break up a fight among comrades when someone hit him over the head with a brick.
And Monteath's struggles are the result of a car wreck.
But ReNu Life activity director Pier Tarrant still considers them heroes.
"All these guys are walking miracles," she said.
Even if they, like Volk, still have scars that lie beneath the surface.
"Our goal is to bring someone in and get them rehabilitated to the point where they can get back to a point where they feel confident about living independently," she said. "But it's not an easy process."
Growth and development director Doug Harrison agreed.
"When they try to integrate into the community, when they go into a Wal-Mart and say something wrong or lose their train of thought or zone out ... the person there working at Wal-Mart doesn't understand. They aren't wearing a badge that says, 'I have a brain injury,'" he said. "So it can be difficult because that person might act to them in a way that's disrespectful because they think, 'Oh, this guy's not listening to me,' because it's not a visible injury."
"I think it's hard on me because I really don't speak all that great," Monteath added. "And I'm good with numbers but dates throw me. I can't hardly remember dates at all."
"I think you speak good," Volk replied.
"Really?" Monteath said, smiling.
"Yeah," Volk said. "You sound great."
Despite the fact that he is finally in recovery, Volk still wonders if his TBI will hold him back after he retires from the Air Force next month.
"I'm very concerned that I'm going to be in a job interview situation and be nervous ... and they will ask me a question ... but I can't remember the answer," he said. "And on the flip side of that, if I walk in there and tell them what's going on, they might see it as a weakness. They might think, 'Why should I hire this guy? He's got a traumatic brain injury.' So in a lot of ways, I don't want it known."
But he is still at peace with the fact that he, after more than a decade, confronted his problem.
"Now that I know what's going on, it enables me to get up every day, get in the shower and say, 'OK. Don't close your eyes,'" he said. "Knowing what's going on certainly helps me control it better than I could before."
And his visit to ReNu Life reinforced what he has felt since that bomb blast back in 1996: That he is one of the lucky ones.
He won't have to leave the military on someone else's terms like Monteath and Girlock.
He won't have to spend his days in an assisted-living facility like those two former soldiers he befriended a few days ago.
But that Tuesday visit to a facility he knew little about before that day won't be his last.
Not now that he knows at least two of his comrades will likely expect his return, even if they might not quite be able to pinpoint just who he is the next time their eyes meet.