By Ed Roth
Randy Elston is finally living his best life, which may be an odd thing to say about a Marine Corps veteran with three traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). Recently named as the Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona’s new Adaptive Recreation & Activities Coordinator, Randy’s tours of duty in Iraq left him with a unique understanding about the difficulties of recovering from brain injury. He sustained his TBIs as a direct result of three improvised explosive device detonations within his one deployment.
The Northwest Indiana native enlisted at the age of 18 and served eight years on active duty in his infantry unit of Light Armored Reconnaissance. In 2005, his unit engaged in ongoing battles. On one mission to intercept insurgents fleeing a city by cutting off the highway system, his vehicle hit a pressure-plate IED. Randy recalls the immediate aftermath. “My ears were ringing, and I had a metallic taste in my mouth.”
Within a few hours and virtually no time to recover, his team was called upon to provide security and recovery operations for another vehicle and crew that hit an IED. On the way over, and with Randy still reeling from the first blast, their maintenance vehicle hit another explosive. “I was standing in the back, fully exposed.”
This injury was more significant. “I broke my back and was knocked out for a period. While I was semi-conscious, I heard people talking but couldn’t quite make out what they were saying due to the ringing in my ears. I was very confused and didn’t realize that my back was broken or that I had a TBI. We just went ahead and completed the mission.”
By the time he returned to a more secure location, he had been awake for around 36 hours and experienced two TBI’s. His Commanding Officer ordered him to get some rest.
Several months later, and less than two weeks from his scheduled leaving of Iraq, he was hit a third time while on a vehicle patrol. As they approached an overpass, he noticed an IED at the guard rail. Just as he tried to shout a warning, the roadside bomb exploded, giving Randy his third TBI in as many months.
By now, the effects of these brain injuries accumulated, which both his Commanding Officer and First Sergeant noticed. “They observed things that I myself wasn’t seeing, I knew I was having memory and mobility issues, like smashing into doorways while trying to walk through them.”
At Medical, brain scans indicated he needed treatment, so Randy was admitted to Scripps Memorial Hospital in Encinitas (California). “At first, I was the only military personnel there. But after 6 months, there were people of all ages and backgrounds, including more individuals who had seen combat.”
Randy eventually received a medical discharge from the Marines, but that brought on a spate of mixed emotions. “I was an up-and-coming 25-year-old Sergeant with a bright future. I didn’t know what to do with the rest of my life.”
Trying to find “the new me,” he enrolled in various colleges to learn new processes. Even though he worked with disability services, his classes were increasingly challenging due to his cognitive and memory issues. He went on to complete his core classes through community college and proudly earned a scholarship to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, AZ.
His ability to adapt led him to expanded horizons. “I volunteered with veteran groups and my church, as well as began to work at a non-profit organization, Arizona Coalition for Military Families. My focus was Risk Reduction for those veterans at risk of suicide.”
Now he is taking his career to the next level as the Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona’s Adaptive Recreation & Activities Coordinator. In his new role, Randy will also be calling upon his experiences as a client and peer support. “I’m here to help organize some of the Alliance’s signature events, like the Rays of Hope conference for survivors and caregivers, the Run, Walk, & Roll for Brain Health, and Camp Brain, a camp for adult survivors of all types of brain injury.
“I also want to establish more consistent activities on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. Being involved is enjoyable and therapeutic,” says Randy. “Self-care is important to the healing process. So whether it’s a hike or an art class, you need to be present in the moment in order to de-stress. That’s how you develop coping skills, and how you heal.”
Luke Fadell, US Veteran and Director of Veteran Services for the Brain Injury Alliance, welcomes Randy’s arrival. “When we met, he showed an enthusiasm to help others that is extremely contagious. With his unique background, he understands what our clients are going through, as well as providing insights into recovery. His upbeat approach is a perfect fit for reaching those trying to reimagine their own lives.”
The latter point drives the avid outdoorsman and father of two daughters. “This is a great opportunity to help others and myself. I struggled with identifying my own self, and now want others in a similar position to realize your brain injury doesn’t define you.
“When surrounded by the right team, you can accomplish so many things; when you don’t just survive, you succeed. If you can imagine it, you can attain it.”
Ed Roth is a Scottsdale based media consultant, branding expert, and writer.