For Wounded Soldier, Healing is Helping Others

Staff Sgt. Joshua Forbess was badly injured in the Iraq. He now serves at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany, working with newly injured troops and helping them navigate the military's medical bureaucracy. Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes
Staff Sgt. Joshua Forbess was badly injured in the Iraq. He now serves at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany, working with newly injured troops and helping them navigate the military's medical bureaucracy. Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes

LANDSTUHL, Germany — Marine Staff Sgt. Matthew Brown just wanted to be back defusing bombs in Afghanistan. Instead, he was letting off steam in a hospital in Germany with a bullet hole in his hip and a story about how the guy who shot him simply drove away.

They were frustrating circumstances, and Brown didn’t want to talk with medical staff about whether he was OK.

“No, I’m not OK,” he said. “I’m pissed off. But I don’t want to talk to someone who doesn’t know about it. You know?”

For him, getting injured and watching the shooter drive away on his motorcycle was a huge disappointment.

“I want to talk to somebody who knows what that crushing feeling is like,” Brown said.

Army Staff Sgt. Joshua Forbess knows.

Recognizing that Brown wasn’t ready to open up, Forbess gabbed about his own war stories, sneaking in bits of advice about what the Marine was likely to face in the coming weeks and months of his recovery.

They were tips Forbess came by the hard way.

Almost 10 years ago, he was badly injured in a helicopter crash in Iraq that killed five other men in his unit. Today, skin grafts and surgical scars cover much of his face and head. While Forbess’ injuries have kept him from returning to combat, they fit his job in “wounded warrior resiliency” at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, where he spends his days talking with injured and ill servicemembers evacuated from war.

When he walks into a patient’s room, “obviously, they can see I’m injured,” which gives him instant credibility, he said.

He doesn’t have any formal medical training, but a decade of living wounded gives him key insights to share with newly injured troops.

Having dealt with injury and a similar sense of helplessness, guys like Forbess “understand what it is that is going on through our minds and where that anger is placed,” Brown said.

“He’s like the daily reminder that it’s going to be OK,” said Spc. Michael Allison, at Landstuhl as he recuperated from a gunshot.

The 'what-if' factor

It was after sunset Nov. 15, 2003, and Forbess was in a Black Hawk helicopter hundreds of yards above Mosul, Iraq, part of a quick-reaction force responding to a shooting in the city.

Another Black Hawk on an unrelated mission was passing nearby when a rocket-propelled grenade roared up from the ground and speared it. The damaged helicopter careened into Forbess’ helo, and both tumbled from the sky.

Two months later, Forbess woke from a medically induced coma at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. He’d lost an ear and most of his nose. Smoke inhalation left his lungs looking like a “dirty chimney,” he said. His hands were shattered, and his face and head burned.

He didn’t remember what happened, but soon learned that 17 of 22 soldiers aboard the two helicopters died in the crash. Five men from Forbess’ 1st Battalion, 320th Field Artillery Regiment, were among the dead.

“The physical injuries were one thing,” Forbess, now 35, said.

“But it was the mental injuries that were driving me insane,” he said. “The ‘what if’ factor, as we like to call it.”

He drank too much as he struggled with the loss of his men and agonized over what happened in the crash.

“Did I crawl out of the wreckage and leave everyone else in there? ... Was I so concerned about my own life that I would rather make sure I was safe and leave the rest of the guys in there?”

Weeks passed before he got more of the story. His biggest fears were put to rest when he learned he was pulled from the wreckage and didn’t abandon his men, but he still struggled with the fact that he lived while the men he led died.

He didn’t think Army medical staff understood what was going on in his head.

“It’s that old adage of, ‘If you haven’t ever seen it or been there ... you know, if you don’t have that T-shirt ... then how can you tell me?’” he said.

So he rebuffed their advice.

Meeting the families of his fallen soldiers finally snapped him out of this malaise.

Forbess said he felt like he was doing worse than the widow of one of his men, and the couple had been married 10 years. He’d known another of the men three years, yet was more mired in grief than the fallen soldier’s parents.

“That was really a turning point for me in my recovery.”

He stopped drowning his sorrows in booze. Following another soldier’s lead, he started walking around the medical center hoping he might say something useful to other wounded troops. He wanted to make his dead buddies and their surviving families proud, to “let them know that me surviving wasn’t a waste.”

Changing jobs

Forbess soon returned to his unit at Fort Campbell, Ky., set on resuming his job as a field artilleryman. But the next time his battalion deployed to Iraq, it went without him.

By the time the unit returned, Forbess realized he wouldn’t deploy again.

He was crushed, but it was time to move on.

He found a job right up his alley — as an ombudsman for wounded and sick soldiers at the post hospital.

“My love is still always talking to the soldiers,” Forbess said.

He now uses his experiences — good and bad — to help soldiers at Landstuhl.

By the time injured soldiers make it back to their home station, most have bounced around the world, spending time in war zone hospitals, Landstuhl and at least one stateside military hospital.

“By that point, you so just want to see your family and see your friends and go back to your unit that you don’t really care about actually recovering,” Forbess said. “Mentally, you’re just so frustrated.”

Few wounded knew the process would be so convoluted before they were injured.

“Over the years what I have seen is the sooner that we can get to the newly wounded or injured” to let them know the ups and downs to come, “the better chance we have of them having a successful recovery,” Forbess said.

As the first stop for all troops evacuated from Afghanistan, Landstuhl has become the place for that Forbess to deliver that message.

Therapy for me, too

Forbess’ ability to reach the patients has not be lost on the staff.

“His insights and credibility move beyond anything that as a physician I could possibly equal,” said Dr. Michael Massa, who works in the hospital’s pain management clinic. “He speaks from a personal history that is infinitely more than most of us could ever imagine, and infinitely more that anyone of us would wish to experience.

“His commitment to recovery stands as an example that all of us could wish to follow,” Massa said.

“You have all these people at the hospital who come in here and say they’re sorry, and they’ll talk to you about how they know what it’s like and stuff like that,” said Spc. Joshua O’Neil, 23, a infantryman who suffered a broken pelvis and other injuries when he was thrown from a truck in a bomb blast in Afghanistan. “But they don’t.”

Forbess, on the other hand, has been there, O’Neil said: “He can actually talk to you about it. He’s actually been there and been through, honestly, worse than I have.”

Forbess doesn’t take his role as a comrade in injury lightly.

“In 2003, we didn’t have anybody to look up to,” he said. “You know, it was the start of the war. There wasn’t as many injured people. And so we basically, we feel like we had to learn how to deal with this on our own.”

So he’s happy to share what he’s learned over the last 10 years.

“It’s still a healing process for me, too,” Forbess said. “Talking to these guys is still therapy for me.”

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Wounded Warriors