MANHATTAN – U.S. Air Force Capt. Anthony Simone is lucky to be alive.
Simone doesn’t remember anything about the day when his helicopter was shot down in the skies over Afghanistan.
He just knows what he’s been told: As a helicopter pilot, his missions were search and rescues. He estimates he saved about 200 servicemen and women during his three tours of duty – two in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.
Simone was due to go home one week before he was shot down. His mission that day was a search and rescue of two wounded British soldiers. Five of the seven crewmen in the chopper died from the blast.
“I would do it again,” Simone said. “If it wasn’t me that was shot down, it would have been someone else.”
A traumatic brain injury, or TBI, can happen in the blink of an eye – from slipping on an icy sidewalk, from a car accident or playing sports or, in the case of Simone, from falling 150 feet out of the sky.
An estimated one in five of the 2.3 million troops who have served in combat since 2001 have suffered a brain injury and/or developed post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the Nov. 5 edition of the Military Times. And scientists from five institutions are one year into a five-year, $42.9 million study to find biomarkers that can indicate evidence of these injuries common to combat veterans.
Brain injuries can be complex as well; and as boxers know well, a blow to one side of the head can affect neurons on the opposite side. Symptoms depend on which area of the brain is damaged and can range from ringing in the ears, blurred vision and moodiness to seizures, numbness or weakness in the limbs, memory impairment and disrupted sleep patterns.
Many TBI patients can reclaim the parts of their brain that were damaged; but for others, the injuries will cause huge challenges the rest of their lives.
A concussion is one of the mildest forms of traumatic brain injuries. More severe TBIs can alter the entire fabric of a life.
Simone’s wife, Andrea, will always remember the morning her doorbell rang with the news. A military friend had told her a helicopter had been shot down in the war zone, but the two had heard it was of a different type from the one her husband flew.
Andrea was sitting on the floor with their 8-month-old son watching “The Today Show” air a segment about the incident. Not 10 minutes later, a commander and a director were at the door. Simone, they told her, was in critical condition and in surgery. The next time she saw him, he was in a San Antonio hospital in a coma
“He was so swollen, and his head was wrapped,” Andrea said. “He was intubated.”
Simone had no broken bones, but the damage to his brain was immense. Simone was in a coma for six weeks and an inpatient in various hospitals for a year. Now, 4½ years after the crash, he’s down to therapy one day each week.
Today, Simone has little use of his left arm, and he walks with a limp. He has spasms in one side of his body; and his wife said he has cognitive difficulties, such as remembering things and carrying out more-complicated tasks. He did rise to a self-imposed challenge two years ago, however, and climbed the 102 staircases of the Willis Tower in Chicago, his Marine Corps father right behind him.
“I got sick and tired of people thinking I couldn’t,” Simone said.
Simone, Andrea and their two children are next in line for a custom-built, handicapped-accessible house that will be constructed for them by Homes for Our Troops, a nonprofit organization that builds specially adapted, mortgage-free homes for the most severely injured veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The group’s goal is “to restore some of the freedom and independence our veterans sacrificed defending ours.” That would do wonders for Simone, whom Andrea called “a very determined, passionate person.”
“He still has the same amount of love he’s always had,” Andrea said, “and he’s a good father.”
Simone, who used to enjoy hunting, described his life as “challenging,” but he is ready and willing to return to the working world. That’s a big hole in his life he needs to fill, he said.
“I’m trying to find a job,” he said. “I need something to do. I would love to do anything to help people that are in the hospital.”
The Dunkin’ Donuts & Baskin-Robbins Community Foundation is donating $10,000 to Homes for our Troops. Those who want to donate can text DD to 71777 in support of Simone’s home.
Andrea will appear on Hallmark's "Home and Family" weeklong segment on millitary caregivers, representing Easter Seals. That segment will air 10 a.m. Nov. 13 and 14. Afterward, Andrea's segment may be seen on the Hallmark Home and Family website at www.hallmarkchannel.com/home-and-family.
Facts about traumatic brain injury
• Caused by a bump, blow or jolt to the head or a penetrating head injury that disrupts the normal function of the brain.
• Each year, 1.7 million people in the U.S. sustain a TBI. Of those, 52,000 die, 275,000 are hospitalized, and 1.36 million are treated in the emergency room and released.
• It’s estimated that at least 5.3 million Americans have a long-term or lifelong need for help to perform activities of daily living as a result of a TBI.
• A TBI can affect thinking, language, learning, emotions, behavior and sensation. It also can cause epilepsy and increase the risk for conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and other brain disorders that become more prevalent with age.
• The two leading causes are falls (35 percent) and car accidents (17 percent).
• Blasts are a leading cause of TBI for military personnel in war zones.
• Signs can be moderate or severe and may not appear until days after the injury.