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Published: Monday, 5/10/2010

Local group helping vets with brain injury

BY JULIE M. McKINNON
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Former Marine Eric Bartkowiak of Toledo, playing with his daughter Lillie, 2, is among the veterans who have been assisted by Arms Forces. Former Marine Eric Bartkowiak of Toledo, playing with his daughter Lillie, 2, is among the veterans who have been assisted by Arms Forces.
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Pam Hays and Terry Morgan are no strangers to traumatic brain injury - and the frustrations that go with it.

A decade after Ms. Hays had a motorcycle accident, shattering her back in 11 places, the Maumee resident still has repeated nausea and other flulike symptoms. Mr. Morgan of Cincinnati a former contractor, lost his senses of taste and smell after he fell through a roof in Brazil, breaking his back in four places.

Changes in comprehension and stamina are among the lingering effects from their accidents. But both have made strides and want to help a group with traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder facing critical readjustments: military veterans.

Called Arms Forces, the local nonprofit organization founded last year by Ms. Hays works with veterans to help them apply for job and educational opportunities, arrange medical and other appointments, and get through other tasks. Ms. Hays and Mr. Morgan, Arms Forces vice president, hope eventually to spread Arms Forces' free services to veterans nationwide.

"We don't get them a job - we don't get them money for food," said Ms. Hays, Arms Forces president. "But what we do is we help navigate their lives to make sure they're getting those things."

This week, Ms. Hays, Mr. Morgan, and four other Arms Forces volunteers will showcase their organization's "life navigation coach" concept in Colorado. There they will help military athletes during the inaugural Warrior Games, a competition for 200 wounded active-duty personnel and veterans at which the U.S. Olympic Committee is host.

Ohio alone has at least 10,000 residents with traumatic brain injury, most of which are mild cases, from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so the need for services to help veterans is immense, said Dr. Chrissane Gordon, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist in Columbus.

It is especially hard for veterans to seek assistance, and Arms Forces' coaching approach works well, said Dr. Gordon, who has screened returning soldiers for traumatic brain injury and works with the Ohio National Guard's Ohio Cares program.

"Service personnel, they don't ask for help," she said. "This group of people, they take care of others."

Eric Bartkowiak of Toledo, a civilian supply technician at the Naval Reserve Center in Perrysburg, is one veteran who has been helped by Ms. Hays. Mr. Bartkowiak, who was injured in Kuwait in 2003 and then was in a coma for five days after being involved in an accident in the Toledo area, said she has helped him pursue his goal of attending college and has assisted in his keeping appointments with counselors for traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder.

"She's basically kept me motivated," said Mr. Bartkowiak, a Marine Corps veteran. "She's got my interests in mind."

Developing a trusting, one-on-one relationship is key to Arms Forces, said Ms. Hays, a former vocational rehabilitation counselor.

People with traumatic brain injury often look as if they are not wounded, but it is difficult for them to remember, concentrate, and make decisions, Ms. Hays said.

"You have like 10 Ping Pong games out there going on at one time," Ms. Hays said.

"They come back, and they're not getting the services and the attention because they look fine."

So far, Arms Forces has worked with eight veterans in the Toledo area referred by the Veterans Administration, Ms. Hays said.

While she and Mr. Morgan want to expand the organization through chapters nationwide, they plan to keep the one-on-one coaching method intact.

Funding is one barrier for Arms Forces' expansion, but it is working on getting assistance from the government, Ms. Hays said.

The organization has received some grants and personal donations, and it campaigning to have people vote daily this month at refresheverything.com/thearmsforces to help win a $50,000 grant from Pepsi to expand into four more states, she said.

Besides helping military athletes this week, Arms Forces wants to spread the word about its organization during the Warrior Games in Colorado Springs, Ms. Hays said. The volunteer group's primary job will be working with competitors with traumatic brain injury at track and field events on Friday, she said.

"The main thing is to try to keep them on schedule and answer their questions and encourage them," Ms. Hays said.

Life likely never will be the same for veterans with traumatic brain injuries and post traumatic stress, Ms. Hays said. Still, she said, there is hope for renewal.

"You appreciate your life more," Mr. Morgan concurred.

"We don't take anything for granted."

Contact Julie M. McKinnon at:

jmckinnon@theblade.com

or 419-724-6087.



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