A Fort Bliss Soldier's wife watched President Barack Obama deliver his State of the Union address from a seat in the House chamber Tuesday evening. She listened closely to promises of support for the nation's war fighters.
"I hope [Obama] will address the care of traumatic brain injury," Roxana Delgado said before the speech. "How he can help us survive. Any ideas he has would be appreciated."
Delgado was invited to Washington, D.C., by U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas. She knows more about traumatic brain injury than many Soldiers and most civilians.
On June 29, 2009, Delgado's husband, Staff Sgt. Victor Medina, was on a mounted patrol protecting supplies headed for a joint security station, where Iraq and U.S. Soldiers worked side by side. An explosively formed projectile, a particularly powerful armor-penetrating roadside bomb, blew up near the vehicle. The projectile missed Medina's head by two feet.
The concussive shock waves, pressure changes and whiplash, however, did their damage. Medina was later diagnosed with moderate traumatic brain injury.
Medina refers to that day in June as "the first day of my new life." He did not understand what had happened to him at the time, and the two days that followed were a blur. He remembers little of the event, even though he functioned as a Soldier throughout. His memories are mostly smoke and confusion. He awakened at an aid station feeling confused and overwhelmed.
Medina returned to duty, but his first sergeant noticed there was something wrong. Delgado also had noticed something wrong with her husband during their Skype conversations.
"I noticed his face was drooping," she said. "He couldn't keep up with the conversation. He couldn't process what I was saying."
Wondering whether her Puerto Rican accent was not translating well through Skype, she tried Spanish. "It wasn't the accent," Delgado said with a self-deprecating laugh.
Her husband had a reputation as an "elite Soldier," she said, but his behavior had changed. She did some research on brain injuries and sent a list of symptoms to the first sergeant.
"He said, 'This is Victor,' " Delgado said.
Violent blows to the head are one of the signature injuries of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. A Defense Department database shows that 202,281 servicemembers were diagnosed with traumatic brain injury between 2000 and 2010. Symptoms range from cognitive to emotional to physical.
After 16 months of rehabilitation, Medina had problems with his vision, hearing and balance. The man who once ran eight miles a day still cannot walk long distances, and he stutters slightly. "When I speak," he said, pointing to his head, "I'm playing catchup."
Delgado soon realized the man she had fallen in love with was gone.
Many marriages are ruined, she said, because the spouse does not understand what has happened.
"People need to learn to talk about it so they don't fall into frustration," Delgado said.
Information helps families dealing with brain trauma, she said, and new science promises to improve the quality of life for those who have the injury.
She and her husband have been successful in creating a new life. But the recovery was a personal struggle, Delgado said, for both of them.
"How do you fall in love again?" she asked. "How does he become my best friend again?"
One of Medina's strongest character traits remained. "I would take care of anything that was thrown at me," he said. "I push on, no matter what."
Medina began to blog about his struggles. At first it was therapy, talking about challenges he faced on the simplest of tasks.
His wife did not baby him. If the words were jumbled, she would tell him and wait for him to straighten the thought out.
"There's always challenges," Medina said. "A head injury is an abrupt change in life. But people change without head injuries."
He added, with no bitterness, "It's a beginning, truly."
And people began to read the blog.
People from around the world responded, saying he had helped them. Then the Army wanted to talk with him. He met with Gen. Peter Chiarelli, vice chief of staff of the Army, and Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, who was the Army's surgeon general until December. Some of his writing is posted on the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury's website.
He and his wife have spoken to groups of military leaders about the problem. And now, as he begins the process of a medical discharge, he is setting his sights on the civilian community.
Medina was also hoping to hear some specifics on brain injury from Obama. But the president's comments were broad.
"Above all, our freedom endures because of the men and women in uniform who defend it," Obama said Tuesday. "As they come home, we must serve them as well as they served us. That includes giving them the care and benefits they have earned."