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Colorado veteran Spencer Milo battled invisible wounds of war after returning home

The American flag. (U.S. Department of State/Flickr)

Spencer Milo had lost the will to live.

The paratrooper was angry, helpless, alone and suicidal. His physical wounds caused him pain: small amounts of shrapnel to his left side and face, injuries to his spine, and hearing loss.

But it was the post-traumatic stress from combat, and a debilitating traumatic brain injury, that tore him up inside.

A teenage suicide bomber in Spin Boldak, Afghanistan, a border town in Kandahar province, had detonated himself just feet away from Milo and his unit while out on patrol.

Milo was sent back to Fort Bragg in North Carolina to recover from his wounds, but he couldn’t escape the trauma of the battlefield.

“I was not OK. I was very angry. I was very reclusive. I drank excessively, and I tried to self-medicate like so many of us do. I wasn’t a very nice person. I was very much of the mindset of ‘I don’t want to be here.’ ”

His marriage was on the rocks, and it seemed to him that the best course of action was to take himself out of the equation.

Milo was lost.

Milo was born in Seattle to a family with well-established military ties. During World War II, both of Milo’s grandfather’s served in the armed services — one as an Army rifle instructor and the other as a Navy submariner.

Following 9/11, like so many Americans, Milo’s interest in enlisting was reignited.

In 2006, at 21, Milo joined the Army as an Airborne infantryman and reported to Fort Benning, Georgia, for basic training. A year later, Milo deployed to Iraq out of Fort Bragg on what he thought would be the his first deployment of a long military career.

But five months into his tour, Milo suffered a concussion after being tossed around the turret of his Humvee as the vehicle crashed. Assuming his disorientation and discomfort was merely a symptom of living and serving in an active war zone, Milo completed his tour.

Upon return to Fort Bragg, Milo underwent a traumatic-brain injury program and was diagnosed with a brain tumor and given six months to live.

“I went from the prime of my life to taking 27 pills a day and gaining over 80 pounds,” Milo said.

Bed-ridden and living in limbo — neither recovering nor nearing death — Milo’s family petitioned the Army for a second opinion. After working with doctors at the University of California San Francisco for three months, Milo was told he had been misdiagnosed. His tumor was neither cancerous nor life threatening.

Suddenly presented with the prospect of a full recovery, Milo’s military aspirations returned.

“When you go from being told you’re going to be dead to ‘no, you’re alive now,’ you just want to get back to life,” Milo said. “And life is service.”

Milo returned to active duty and was deployed in Afghanistan in 2010.

But within a year of being redeployed, Milo faced another crossroads.

It was in January 2011 that the 15-year-old Afghan boy detonated himself 10 feet from Milo’s combat unit.

After several attempts to return to to the field, Milo was sent back to Fort Bragg to undergo further treatment at the brain-injury clinic. Six months in, Milo showed few signs of progress. He was angry about the prospect of being forced to retire from the military, and began self-medicating — damaging his relationship with his family and falling into a deep depression.

With a daughter on the way, Milo faced a self-prescribed ultimatum: find a new method of treatment or take himself out of the equation.

He chose the former.

Having exhausted resources at Fort Bragg, Milo’s doctors transferred him to the National Intrepid Center of Excellence at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

Milo arrived at the NICoE with two diagnosis — a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress. He left with 27.

“The NICoE saved my life,” Milo said. “I know a lot of people may think that 27 diagnosis versus two is a lot worse, but it was actually a lot better because I finally knew what was going on.”

Over the course of four weeks at the NICoE, Milo followed an intense and integrative treatment plan. NICoE gave Milo multilateral access to specialized doctors and traditional treatments like speech pathology and physical therapy, along with nontraditional treatments such as art therapy, biking, yoga and K-9 therapy with a service dog named Nemo.

“At the NICoE for the first time ever I felt like a patient, and not a number. And that was more important than anything. For the first time I was seeing hope that I really could get better.”

Yet despite progress, Milo’s injuries were too severe to allow him to return to active duty and redeploy. Milo was medically retired in 2013 at age 28 — a fact that he started coming to terms with while still at the NICoE.

However, Milo’s service was far from finished.

Today, Milo lives with his wife and two children in Castle Rock and serves as the director of veterans programs, communications and strategic development for the Marcus Institute for Brain Health (MIBH) at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. Like the NICoE and its satellite Intrepid Spirit Centers across the country, the MIBH offers a model to treat mild to moderate brain injuries, post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety.

“Invisible injuries are so prevalent in the post 9/11 and war on terror,” Milo said. “People just don’t realize how much of a plague it is. There’s still a stigma around mental health. The biggest thing is to make people realize that you can get better — you don’t just have to sit quietly. “


© 2018 The Denver Post

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