Modesto veteran doesn’t want his ‘invisible injuries’ to be the death of him

Modesto veteran struggles with brain injury and PTSD

Army veteran Eli Price has been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, he has a 100 percent disability rating from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. He suffers seizures, sleeplessness and suicidal thoughts.
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Army veteran Eli Price has been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, he has a 100 percent disability rating from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. He suffers seizures, sleeplessness and suicidal thoughts.

At his lowest points, just a few things have kept Army veteran Eli Price from committing suicide, he said: the thought of causing his mother that pain; not wanting his Army friends, who’ve already seen so many of their number kill themselves, to endure another loss; and not knowing what, if anything, comes afterward.

“You know what’s going on in your life, and if you killed yourself, do you think it would be over?” he said. “I’m not really religious, but I have a hunch if you kill yourself, you might go to hell. I don’t know what comes next, but —.” Looking downward, he paused. “It’s an ongoing argument in my head. A few times, it’s been the only thing. ‘What if because you’re weak right now, you end up in hell?’”

The Davis High graduate is living his own personal hell years after finishing a 12-month deployment in Afghanistan.

Most wouldn’t know it, though.

Price returned home in the summer of 2011 a damaged man, but unlike his military brothers who lost arms, legs, fingers, toes and eyesight. His scars are on the inside, the result of being concussed by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and of the toll that “hunting man” and being hunted takes on the psyche, he said.

“I know I’m not missing a limb, but I feel like I’m missing my brain … or at least the good part of my brain,” the 28-year-old said in talking about the fight for his life that’s continued long after his military service ended.

Price, diagnosed with traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder, has a 100 percent disability rating from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. He suffers seizures, sleeplessness and depression.

He knew the risks when he signed up to join the Army, he said, and now seeks simply the same level of care afforded to guys who came back more obviously traumatized. Instead, when he seeks VA help, Price said, it sometimes begins with a wait of weeks for an appointment. Doctors want him to try a medication for six months, and then try another pill when that first one doesn’t help, he said. Meantime, the suicidal thoughts remain.

So far, counseling also has not helped, though he has hope it could, with the right fit. “But they have a round hole and they’re just throwing all shapes at it,” he said of the VA connecting veterans with counselors.

Unlike many veterans, he’s always been able to talk about his experiences, Price said, “so when I get a counselor, it’s, ‘OK, what do you want to know?’” But then it gets to the point where “he puts a light display on or something to calm me down, and it’s like, ‘Guy, I’m not here for your experimental things.’”

When traumatized veterans are returning from duty and reintegrating to civilian life, the military and the VA need to prepare them for a long and challenging road, said Sara Kintzle, a research associate professor with the University of Southern California’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, Military and Veterans Programs. A mental health expert with the VA Palo Alto Health Care System had not been responded to a request for comment by deadline.

Counseling definitely is not a one-size-fits-all treatment, she said, and it unfortunately can takes years of meeting with one professional after another to find the right match. Complicating matters is that if a vet is on a medication that’s not doing what it should, counseling still may be ineffective, Kintzle added.

A VA page on TBI research cites a 2015 study that found “that veterans with a combination of depression, PTSD, and military-related TBI had the greatest difficulties of all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in getting around, communicating and getting along with others, handling self-care, and accomplishing other daily tasks. According to the research team, many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans require highly integrative treatment approaches, and their health problems need to be dealt with in a comprehensive and coordinated manner.”

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Eli Price shares at a May 15 meeting of the True Patriots veterans support group in Modesto. Group discussions include benefits, depression, anxiety, PTSD and anything else that may be of importance to members. Deke Farrow

Buddy has his back

Corey Kent, a Coral Gables, Fla., resident and Price’s best friend, is an Army vet and multiple amputee who understands how the Modestan feels. Having appointments booked so far out, being given ineffective medicines time and again, facing the risk of being 5150’d (placed under an involuntary psychiatric hold) because he may pose a danger to himself — “that’s not going to make anyone reach out for help,” Kent said.

Kent has been working to get Price to move to Coral Gables. He’d go to his VA appointments with him, he said, “and if they give him crap, I’ll step in.”

It sounds like Kent has won over his friend. Price bought a one-way ticket to Coral Gables and is set to leave Aug. 15, said his mother, Corky Price. “Bittersweet for me, for sure. But I want what’s best for him.”

For a Davis High grad who enthusiastically joined the Army and pictured it or law enforcement as his career, reintegrating to civilian life has seemed an insurmountable struggle. One that’s cost him his marriage, forced his family to once call the authorities out of concern for his mental health, and led him to self-isolate.

Her son and his sweetheart wed while he was home on leave, said Corky Price, but split within months of him being home for good. At that point, “he didn’t see any hope,” she said. He went to live with his parents. “That’s when the whole suicide kind of thing came up, and it freaked me out, and the rest of us.” So they called 911, which resulted in a 5150 response.

Because of his combat experiences and struggles to get the care he needs, Price said he has a temper. He keeps to himself because it’s safe. He’ll walk through the family almond orchard, where it’s quiet and he can see anybody coming his way. It’s a release, he said. Out there alone, no one can say he’s offending them or bothering them. “For a while, I was in such a bad place I wasn’t talking with anyone outside my mom, and her only occasionally.”

Corky said she’s heard “things a mother shouldn’t hear. But if he has to tell them and I’m the only one there, then I’m going to listen.”

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Eli Price, left, in an undated photo during his deployment in Afghanistan

‘Goddamn IEDs’

Price, with the 101st Airborne out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, was a “13 Bravo cannon crew member, an artilleryman,” he said. He was trained to provide heavy, long-range fire to support infantry.

In 2010, members of the 101st knew deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan was coming down the pike, Price said. Then they learned they’d been retasked as provisional infantry. After a few months of infantry training, they found themselves in the Arghandab River Valley north of Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Capt. Norman Black, who at the time was Price’s lieutenant and platoon leader for nine months leading up to deployment and three months into it, called the deployment “very significant.”

“Artillerymen historically have seen times of combat, but in the war on terror, not so much,” he said earlier this year by phone from Italy. “But they made us provisional infantry. We dismounted and we met the enemy on the ground.”

The 101st hit Afghanistan in summer, which Price said is fighting season for the Taliban. They’d get up in the morning and shoot at U.S. forces, stop firing during the heat of the day, then resume when the sun started to go down, he said.

Fighters with the hardline Islamic movement didn’t tend to engage in combat in the winter because there was no foliage to hide them, Price said. “They still will bury their goddamn IEDs, though, and you still have to patrol in the winter.”

Describing the patrol experience, Price said, “We go out as quiet as we can, because you’re hunting man, essentially, and everyone is doing their job to stay quiet and calm. You move in a ranger file, usually, which is just a straight line spaced out in case of the IEDs,” he said. “When somebody hits one, it’s a split second and it goes from calm and everything is relatively fine to all of sudden your ears are ringing, you see white specks. ... I was close to 300 pounds with all my gear on and I would just get swatted to the ground.”

When a fellow soldier would lose an extremity or otherwise be wounded, it was the intact guys like Price who had to pick themselves up and leap into action: Get the wounded to safety, help the medics, clear a landing zone for medevac helicopters and then pull security duty, because the Taliban would try to attack the landing copters.

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U.S. Army Pfc. Eli Price, of Modesto California, from the 101st Airborne Division sleeps at COP Nolen, in the volatile Arghandab Valley, Kandahar, Afghanistan, Monday, July 26, 2010. Rodrigo Abd ASSOCIATED PRESS

A step, then white-hot pain

Among those badly hurt soldiers was Corey Kent, Price’s best friend at Fort Campbell and since their return home. Price deployed earlier and so “was always a few days or weeks ahead of me when we were bouncing out to outposts,” Kent said.

Kent arrived July 4, 2010, at what would be his final outpost, and was wounded July 12. His squad was on patrol when the point man hit an IED. The call was made to turn around. “I took one or two steps back and that’s when I stepped on mine,” he said.

Kent remembers lying on his back, remaining conscious and not screaming, though he felt “white-hot” pain and “steamroller pressure” all around his legs. “I could feel I was injured, but I’d never even broken a bone before, so I didn’t know what was going on,” he said by phone from his home in Coral Gables.

He’s been told that by the time he got to a field hospital, his heart had stopped and had no blood in it. He was revived through heart massage. “I woke up eight days later at Walter Reed (National Military Medical Center) in Washington,” Kent said. “All the fingers on my left hand had to be amputated because of infection.” Doctors were unable to save his legs, so the right was amputated at the hip, and the left at mid-thigh.

Despite his terrible injuries, Kent said that in some ways, he thinks Price has it worse. There’s no way to accurately express what deployments such as theirs are like, Kent said. “They’re a really hard thing to relate to. ... I was only there a short time, and he was there an entire year.”

Kent recognizes the changes in himself after his military experience, including memory trouble and a short temper. But they’re not nearly as dramatic as what he and others see in Price. “I think the reason I am not worse off is I was not there a long time.”

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Veteran Eli Price has been dealing with PTSD since leaving the Army. Photographed at his home in Modesto Calif., Thursday, June 7, 2018. Andy Alfaro

‘Wasting away’

Price once was so lighthearted, the funnyman of the unit, Kent said. Now, it’s tough to get that out of him. “I feel like I’m one of the few people who can.” Both friends agree that Price seems at his best when he’s with Kent and Kent’s family.

Playing with Kent’s daughter, who turned 1 in April, Price minds his language and temper. “He makes her laugh and she makes him laugh. I think it’s really good for him.”

Asked if he has even the slightest apprehension about bringing his troubled friend into his family fold, Kent said no. “I trust him more than anybody, besides my wife. I know he’s got my back, and I’ve got his.”

In talking about Price and other vets with TBI and PTSD, Kent used a common term, “invisible injuries.” Thing is, the consequences are plainly visible, as Kent noted in talking about Price’s personality change. Anyone who knew pre-deployment Price and the man he is now can speak of the difference.

And when her son was being processed for honorable discharge from the Army, an EEG (electroencephalogram) test of the brain activity came back abnormal, Corky Price said. Then there’s his dramatic weight loss — a topic Eli has long tired of hearing. He once weighed in the 230-250 range, but now is about 145, and not from healthy living. “He’s just slowly wasting away,” his mother said.

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At a May 15 meeting of the True Patriots veterans support group in Modesto, co-founder Jerry Wood, center, talks to Eli Price (not pictured). To Wood’s right is co-founder and President Carlos Lara. To his left is member Walt Cupid. Deke Farrow

Circle of support

Sitting in a dark room all day isn’t going to help him, Price acknowledged. He said he knows he needs hobbies, and so has taken up gardening. “It’s hard on my knees and back, but it does bring me calm when I’m out there doing it.” He enjoys raising chickens, too, he said.

Price also appears to be finding hope and help with Modesto’s True Patriots support group, veterans who also feel the VA has largely failed them, so struck out to help themselves. “That seat’s been waiting for him. We hold a special place for those having a hard time adjusting,” said Carlos Lara, president and co-founder of the group, said this spring.

In May, Price started attending attending meetings of the True Patriots, mostly Vietnam War veterans. He shared with his mother that the experience is bittersweet because he relates to the older men and their experiences but hopes he doesn’t find himself still struggling decades from now.

At one meeting, Price shared that he uses a cannabis compound in a vape pen to help with sleeplessness and seizures. But he quit telling VA doctors that he uses marijuana because they kept telling him it’s bad for him. He said he’s been told things like, “’You might get emphysema when you’re 60.’ I said, ‘Well, I might be dead tomorrow because I don’t have any.’”

A recent New York Times article said the VA, citing federal law, will not recommend cannabis products for patients and for the most part has declined even to study their potential benefits

Price told the True Patriots that when he returned from his Afghan deployment, it was almost routine to have to go to a service for a fellow soldier who’d killed himself. And at some point after leaving the Army, he stopped using Facebook “because it seemed like every time I was going on, it was, ‘Hey, did you hear about ...?’ It was just bad news.”

There was no Facebook when Jerry Wood returned from Vietnam, but he could relate. At that time, fellow veterans were committing suicide in part because of the way the American public perceived them, he said.

He understands, too, Price’s need to isolate. “I learned real fast not to share with anybody because they wouldn’t understand,” he said at the meeting. “All they wanted to hear is if I killed somebody.”

He’d have rather talked, though, about more lighthearted experiences, like “the crazy s--- I did when I went on R&R.” Not reintegrating well, “I went to ground,” he said. He became a trucker “and spent 38 years in a truck, which was great therapy for me.”

Kintzle said it’s good that Price has found some solace among the veterans support group. “While it’s not necessarily ‘treatment,’ it helps,” she said. Veterans groups are places to hear what’s working for others and gather referrals and connections.

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Eli Price when he was a student at Grace M. Davis High in Modesto

A call for change

Kent feels for Price when they’re in public together, he said. “People would thank me for my service, and it’s awkward because he did it, too, longer than me. It makes me feel a little guilty, but I don’t want to point out that he’s a vet, too, because he doesn’t like to talk to strangers.”

Kent said he hopes that Price and other veterans sharing their experiences is a catalyst for change in their health care and general treatment. “People need to understand traumatic brain injury is a real thing … a physical injury. You’re feet away from an explosion. To think that wouldn’t cause a physical injury is absurd.”

Price said he wants veterans’ pleas for help to be truly heard and acted upon effectively. Of the many suicides he’s heard about, “I’ve not heard of one guy yet who went to no one. They all went and told someone, ‘I’m thinking of killing myself.’”

The VA’s latest national report on veteran suicide, released in June and covering the years 2005-15, states, “After adjusting for differences in age, the rate of suicide in 2015 was 2.1 times higher among veterans compared with non-veteran adults.”

The VA’s 2018-2024 Strategic Plan report says suicide prevention is the department’s highest clinical priority. It notes that in his May 2017 “State of the VA” briefing, VA Secretary David J. Shulkin outlined “veteran-facing challenges that include the disability claims backlog, the lack of consistent quality care throughout the system, and veteran suicides.”