One of the great pleasures of working in the traumatic brain injury (TBI) recovery field is encountering stories from survivors who were almost left for dead, but who have since made remarkable recoveries from and have become difference makers. A week ago, while attending the Missouri Brain Injury Association conference in St. Louis, Missouri, I had the pleasure of meeting James Sperry, a Marine combat veteran who is setting the bar for what it means to make a difference for TBI and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) survivors. The details of his combat injury and personal struggles as a combat TBI and PTSD survivor are detailed in a remarkable new book titled “The Things They Cannot Say”, written by Kevin Sites.
Like many of his military combat trauma brothers and sisters, Sperry’s journey back to finding himself after his military discharge included encounters with the co-occurring battles of TBI, substance abuse, and thoughts of suicide. His road to recovery included a 30 day treatment stay in a VA behavioral health program. He noticed quickly that the overwhelming majority of his fellow patients in the program where Vietnam-era veterans. James described a vision of seeing himself in the same place at their age. He acknowledged this as a significant moment in his process of recovery. He then spent most of his time in this program getting to know the story and journey of each of the Vietnam-era participants. Even with this awareness, his struggles with alcohol and other war related trauma continued for another 5 years. He finally found balance in his life through a rehabilitation program for younger veterans with TBI and PTSD in Atlanta’s Shepherd Hill Center called the SHARE Military Initiative. Once James came to a good place in his process of recovery, he took inheritance money he received from the passing of his grandmother, and, with fellow Marine combat veterans, they launched a non-profit group called, The Fight Continues.
The mission of The Fight Continues is mentoring transitioning service members and their families. This organization has also established a nationwide support system to dissuade veterans from suicide as well as a national TBI and PTSD awareness program. More extraordinary are the actions he and his team undertake outside this mission. In the past two weeks alone, he was in Pennsylvania contributing to a new ground breaking TBI brain imaging study. Days after speaking at the Missouri Brain Injury Conference, he was in Michigan assisting with the remodeling of a home donated to a combat trauma veteran. Then, this past Saturday, he was back in St. Louis leading a fund-raising effort for veterans outside a local sports arena. The actions that have spoken loudest for me were the organization’s volunteer efforts with the search and recovery team of the Joplin, Missouri and Moore, Oklahoma tornado relief initiatives. To quote James “if I could stop one person from finding a body, from going through the traumatic thing of the dead weight, the smell, the horribleness that goes around that, it would make me feel better.” In order to prevent trauma to others, Sperry’s group went into both of these situations, and volunteered to be the ones to recover bodies of the many victims.
While attending the Missouri Brain Injury Conference, I also had the honor of sitting next to one of the Missouri State Legislators at lunch. Our conversation turned to the struggles with funding brain injury programs under the tight fiscal conditions of the past few years. This particular representative pointed out that from their perspective, we needed to focus our efforts on programs that work and let go of programs that are not working. I agree, and also think we should start with programs focused on their mission with dedicated people who can think outside the box with solutions to unexpected problems. James Sperry and his organization, The Fight Continues, recognize a way to play to their strengths, even when it tests their greatest life lessons. Click here if you want to learn more. While you are there, buy a wonderful book about what drives this kind of person. Then sit back and watch what they do with the proceeds.