My Journey with TBI: Invisible Injury and Shame

As I stood before the medical review board convened to assess my injuries from a series of falls while I was in the SEAL Teams, and determine what, if any, financial compensation I should receive as a result of these invisible injuries, I was immediately confronted with shame:

“Lt. Doebler, I have to say we were very curious to see you, a Navy SEAL Officer, today. We are obviously aware of what happened to you and the recommendation that you be medically discharged from the United States Navy. However, it’s hard to make a judgement because, if I can be honest, you look fine.”

This is how the medical board began. This was my first experience with what we now understand to be invisible injuries. And it didn’t get much better after this opening salvo.  

Another board member chimed in, “Usually, it is easy to assess damages because the people who come in here are usually missing a limb, or a hand, or a finger. Something that shows they have been injured. You look healthy and in great condition.”

I remember a wave of emotions come over me. I remember feeling angry that I felt I was being put in a position to defend myself. “You asked me here!” I wanted to scream. “I’m being punished because I continued to take care of myself after I was injured?!” I also wanted to scream. Then this thought raged through my mind as I stood there, “Do they think I’m here to beg for money?!”

I’m pretty sure a couple of other board members spoke, but I have no idea what they said. I was in a fog. I had no idea what to say or how to respond. So, in typical SEAL fashion, I decided to go on the offensive. I was ready to tell the board, in all due respect, that I didn’t want anything from them. If they thought nothing was wrong with me then we should save ourselves a lot of time and end this ridiculous review board because I wasn’t going to stand there and be insulted!

So, I steadied myself, took a deep breath…and cried.

That is when the shame kicked in. Here I was, an Officer in the world’s most elite fighting force, a leader of men, crying in front of total strangers. I felt shame that this was how I was representing the organization that meant everything to me.

“Leave!!” I shouted to myself.

“Don’t do any more harm to the reputation of the SEAL Teams,” I continued to silently urge myself.

Instead, I meekly responded, “I’m not here to ask for money. I’m here because I was ordered to be here. However, I just have a feeling that my injuries are not healed, and I may need some medical attention down the line. I just hope that I won’t be forced to pay for this out of my pocket.”

I was asked to elaborate.

I had lost some use of my hand due to my ulnar nerve being severed from one of the falls. This is what I focused on. I told them that no one could assess whether I would recover full use of my hand. What’s more, I added, there was still a terrible pain in my wrist when I moved my hand.

And then, ever more meekly, “And I just can’t stop these headaches. They just never seem to stop.”

I can’t remember much after that, other than the fact that I felt humiliated. I left that meeting feeling as insignificant as I had ever felt.

It didn’t end there.

There was very little discussion, if any at all, around the effect of my head injuries. So, I focused on managing the headaches, what triggered them, trying to “see” them coming so I could rush to bed before they got too bad.

On several occasions while driving I had to pull over on the side of the road, to include highways, and sleep because my vision became so blurred and the pain was overwhelming.

Finally, the pain in my wrist became so bad I went to the military hospital in Bethesda, MD. I had to force my way in for an appointment. The War on Terror was underway and the priority, rightfully so, went to active-duty members.

The humiliation and shame continued as “forcing” my way in for an appointment turned into begging for an appointment. Finally, I was given an x-ray of my wrist and scheduled for a surgery. The x-ray revealed two bones floating around my wrist which was the obvious cause of my pain.

As I was prepped for surgery, the doctor came over to do her standard doctor, pre-surgery check in. I remember being ready to thank her for doing the surgery and wanting to ask her about my headaches. They just weren’t getting much better. Any thought of conversation ended immediately upon the doctor’s comments to me, “We have people serving in here who need our help.”

The message to me was clear, “You don’t belong here.”

Once again, I found myself stunned and ashamed. My response was even meeker than the one at my medical review board, “I’m sorry.”

And then, more under my breath than an actual audible sentence, “I served.”

After completing the surgery the doctor came over with two large pieces of bone she removed from my wrist floating in a jar. She asked me if I wanted them, as a souvenir of sorts.

“No thank you,” I said. And I left.

I vowed then and there I would never speak of my injuries again. Especially the headaches.

The shame and humiliation of my invisible injuries were complete.

To be continued…

Errol Doebler is the founder of Leader 193, a leadership consulting firm. After successful careers as a Navy SEAL Platoon Commander and FBI Special Agent, Errol founded Leader 193 to realize his passion of empowering great leaders and better human beings. Errol provides executive coachingkeynote speaking, and corporate retreats to individuals and teams across the world.

Errol is hosting a FREE Leadership Workshop on Tuesday September 21st at 3pm EST. The workshop is designed for all levels of leader in every field of endeavor who want to level up and become the best version of themselves. Secure your spot here.

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