A Service of brainline.org
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Navy Safe Harbor’s Judith Carlisle wants everyone to know that Sailors, Coast Guardsmen, and veterans with brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder should be cared for and treated as the heroes that they are.
If Judith Carlisle had her druthers, every Sailor, Coast Guardsman, or veteran who has sustained a traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder would have a small scar on his forehead like Harry Potter’s — a scar that would light up when he was angry, anxious, or afraid, making his invisible and sometimes misunderstood injury visible. “The Harry Potter scar would speak for the person, ‘This is my battle injury, the reason I act this way sometimes. Please don’t judge me’,” says Judith, who for the last four years has worked as a non-medical care manager at Navy Safe Harbor.
Judith Carlisle is one of those people who oozes passion — passion for the work she believes she was born to do. Before joining Navy Safe Harbor in 2008, Judith had worked for many years for the foreign service doing health education. While her daughter was growing up, the single mother went back to school for “a couple of masters,” but she knew she wanted to work for the Navy and help wounded warriors. “Sometimes the energy you put out in the world comes back around to you,” she says. Rather out of the blue, she got a call about working as one of the first non-medical care managers at Navy Safe Harbor — the Navy’s lead organization for coordinating non-medical care of seriously ill, wounded, and injured Sailors, Coast Guardsmen, and their families. With her career background, education, and the fact that she had volunteered and advocated for years for veterans’ rights, she was hired on the phone.
“I have never worn a uniform, but the minute I started training as a non-medical care manager for Navy Safe Harbor, I thought: now I have the chance to give back,” says Judith. “Our mission is to help wounded, ill, and injured warriors and their families get the best care available through the entire spectrum of recovery, rehabilitation, and reintegration … basically, for the rest of their lives when and if they need it.”
Judith says she feels the intense immediacy of the job, especially when it comes to the service members with mild traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder. “There are some very, very sick warriors out there with visible and invisible wounds who need help, and they need it today, not tomorrow,” she says.
"My invisible wound guys would give up a limb in a split second in trade for their brain injury. There hasn’t been one person I’ve asked who didn’t respond like that," says Judith Carlisle.
Coordinating a wounded warrior or veteran’s non-medical care can include arranging travel for the family to arrive at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, MD (now the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center) before their injured loved one returns stateside; setting up housing or childcare for the family; helping Sailors, veterans, or their family members enroll in online classes or internships; and planning individually focused job training for warriors retiring from the Navy or Coast Guard. She has helped coordinate assistance with résumé writing, found funding for accessible housing and renovations, and helped veterans obtain service dogs, which can make a significant difference in quality of life.
“Every minute is such a blessing to work with these people, “says Judith. “As I pull on base every morning as a civilian, I feel so lucky. I’m like the mom to all these guys. I mean, they’re letting me work with these heroes and their families. It’s incredible.”
For the first two years, Judith didn’t have an office. No one did. Navy Safe Harbor consisted of two care managers working in a coffee shop and a few folks at headquarters. Now, the organization has a full staff at headquarters and non-medical care managers at all the major military treatment facilities across the country. This, of course, includes Bethesda — which is now “two officers and a mom.” They recently moved to Building 62 at the new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, complete with barracks for wounded warriors and their families. “We have three offices and a Navy Safe Harbor sign on our door,” she says. “We’re a one-stop shop, the lead organization of its kind for the Navy and Coast Guard, and while we mainly enroll the seriously injured, we never say no to assisting a Sailor or Coast Guardsman who may have a few needs or who is just having a hard time adjusting to life post-deployment.”
Seeing the invisibly injury
Judith is especially driven to help those who have sustained a traumatic brain injury — and to raise awareness about this often invisible and misunderstood injury. “One of the biggest challenges ahead for this country, even after the wars end, is helping the thousands of returning service members who have mild traumatic brain injury and/or post-traumatic stress disorder,” she says. “I mean, these are young men and women — sometimes as young as 19 and 20 — who may need life-long care. Who is going to take care of the tens of thousands of heroes from age 19 to 90-plus?
“Most service members would trade a limb in a second for their brain injury. There hasn’t been one person who hasn’t brought up the subject,” she says. They tell her that no one can see what’s wrong with them, no one recognizes their service or sacrifice because no one knows they’re hurt. If they act out, people just think they’re crazy, drunk, or lazy.
"[Navy and Coast Guard veterans] have told me that having a retreat four or five times a year for a couple of days with other veterans with TBI would help," says Judith Carlisle. "A place and a time, they’ve said, where they can let down their guard, share ideas, feel understood — fully, no shame."
Mild TBIs sustained in combat may not be documented, especially if the service member does not lose consciousness or is not evaluated at the time. There may be no medical record to show later when the person is acting out of character that there is an actual medical reason for their behavior.