TBI chronicles, part 3: Meeting Matthew Pennington

Well, as I’m sure you can see, I was a born theatre-maker–not so much a blogger! I’m having such an exciting time running around doing research for Make Sure It’s Me/nh, as well as stepping into my new role as Associate Director of ACT ONE, that I keep forgetting to keep y’all posted. (I am allowed to say “y’all,” since I did my graduate work at UT Austin. Hook ’em, horns!)

So, I’ve decided to wrap up my discussion of the spring’s crash course in Traumatic Brain Injury in military service members by telling you about Sgt. Matthew Pennington, one of the many presenters at the Fourth Annual New England Civilian-Military Cooperation Conference on Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury in Chelmsford, MA in April. This conference brought together care providers from VA hospitals and numerous community-based organizations in several New England States. (And was co-chaired by two brilliant women: Tammy Masse of Naval Health Clinic New England and Donna Beaudin of Northeast Rehabilitation.) I had read about Matt in the New York Times in January, in an article called “Acting Out War’s Inner Wounds.” I knew he was from Maine and hoped I’d be able to connect with him to participate in MSIM/nh. When I realized that he’d be speaking at this conference I was attending, I emailed him to introduce myself. He was extremely gracious and said he looked forward to meeting me in Chelmsford. Woo hoo!

Although every presenter was marvelous (including Major General William Reddel, the Adjutant General of the New Hampshire National Guard, who had us all misty-eyed as he painted a portrait of the NG’s citizen warrior population), Matthew Pennington was an instantly beloved hit with the crowd. He put a personal face on the cost of war–and not just a face. He appeared before us that day in shorts and a t-shirt, an outfit that displayed his proudly-tattooed arms and also his lower legs. Matt had lost his left leg, severely injured his right leg, and sustained a traumatic brain injury serving in the Army in Iraq in 2006. And so he stood there on one prosthetic leg and with clear, extensive scarring on the other. I found this to be a courageous gesture of trust, as well as an immediate visual aid in understanding his story.

Matt’s experiences coming home from Iraq with multiple wounds is sadly familiar: while his early treatment at Walter Reed was reasonably successful, when he was sent home with his new prosthesis and moderate anxiety symptoms, he wasn’t prepared for the downward emotional and physical spiral he suffered as he tried to build a new life in the civilian world. Living in central Maine, he found limited services to address his deepening problems: mood swings, cognitive difficulties, and a parade of VA health providers who prescribed him antidepressants during short appointments during which Matt didn’t feel he could make himself heard or understood. Through his own research, and with the help of a doctor and counselors at a Houston veterans health center, Matt began to understand how his traumatic experiences in Iraq had created a combined syndrome of PTSD and TBI. And that certain medications would only make his symptoms worse.

But this new insight wasn’t enough to pull him out of his depression when he again returned home and tried to rebuild. What made the difference for Matt was a 2009 casting call by NYU student filmmaker Nicholas Brennan, who was looking for a wounded veteran from Maine to star in his short film, “A Marine’s Guide to Fishing.” (Although Matt was in the Army, he plays a Marine in the film–so he’s been known to Tweet both “hooah” and “hoo rah” on Twitter to cover both branches.)

As he explained to us in Chelmsford, Matt found the idea of plunking himself down in the middle of the New York student film scene pretty crazy. But he decided to “soldier up”–he had certainly faced worse in his life than a bunch of bleeding-heart liberal artists! And that experience has been transformational for him–not only has Matthew Pennington performed a star turn in a solid piece of filmic storytelling, he has also found a mission. He now travels the country with a program called “Operation: Marine’s Guide,” in which he tells his story, screens the film, and shares some important points about our wounded warriors. Sometimes his director, Nicholas Brennan, or his producer, John Logan Pierson, go with him. All three were on hand in Chelmsford, all lovely people. But they let Matt take center stage. Here are the concepts that have stayed with me from hearing Matt speak:

  • Service members exposed to the compression-blast wave from an IED have probably sustained a traumatic brain injury. The injured brain needs time to heal–and antidepressants and other medications often prescribed for PTSD may be dangerous for those living with a TBI.
  • Wounded veterans don’t easily trust civilian caregivers, who often have little understanding of military culture. It goes against a service member’s training and instincts to self-identify as wounded and ask for help. So veterans may find the support they need at Vet Centers, where the majority of counselors are themselves veterans, and where the consultations are confidential and not part of the military record. 
  • A major problem for veterans (or those who still serve) with a TBI is the constant surges of adrenaline they experience in response to everyday occurrences. This dysfunction in the adrenaline response could last for months or even years, so veterans who experience it need to find coping skills to help them “stand down” in these panicky moments.

Matt shared with us an awesomely effective, easy-to-remember coping strategy for panic attacks:

The adrenaline surge you feel comes from the “animal” part of your brain. So, first engage the animal brain by pointing in the direction of your home. Matt oriented himself towards one corner of the room as he pointed north and said, “That’s home.” Next, you have to engage the rational brain in order to quiet the animal brain. So, look at your watch and make note of the time and the date. By the time you have focused clearly on the date and the time, your rational brain may have the upper hand and the adrenaline response may start to abate. (Try it! It works!)

The marvelous thing about this bit of strategy Matt shared with us is that I had noticed him taking tiny “coping” breaks during his presentation. He remained calm, but allowed himself occasionally to break eye contact with the audience, fall silent, and take his time organizing his thoughts. When he told us about the Home/Watch exercise, he confessed that he has these adrenaline surges quite often, even when he’s giving talks like this. So these coping strategies are not just something he used for a short time to “cure himself”. They are part of the ongoing process of healing that he performs every day.

I was fortunate to spend some time after lunch that day chatting with Matt. He is extremely personable and passionate about helping other wounded veterans, as well as the care providers and family members who work and live with veterans and want to better understand their experiences. But he’s also a guy’s guy who makes time in his schedule for fishing and would like to learn more about film-making and acting. My biggest difficulty interacting with Matt is resisting the urge to hug him! From the interactions I saw taking place around him at the conference, I am not alone in that reaction. If anyone out there is looking for a speaker for your veterans’ group, health care conference, community organization, or church meeting, please visit the site for “A Marine’s Guide to Fishing” to contact Matthew Pennington.

So, I lay the Springtime’s adventures to rest–more unfolds even as I scramble to finish this and race to the next meeting. I’m happy to say I’m gearing up to direct Tragedy: a tragedy and performa run of Clean Room, so the satisfaction I feel in helping New Hampshire’s military is complemented by the pure joy of making more theatre. Thanks for reading and best wishes to all!

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