— By SALLY SEXTON
Almost a year before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks hit, Weatherford High School graduate Jeremy “Chad” Snowden made a commitment to his country by enlisting in the U.S. Army at the age of 28.
Four years later, tragedy struck in Fallujah, Iraqwhere Snowden was a gunner on a humvee, trying to secure the streets while major attacks were going on. Snowden was hit on the left side of the forehead, just below his helmet, with an AK-47 bullet.
The bullet did extensive damage, and Snowden suffered more than 100 fractures to his skull as well as injuries to his back and lower extremities as the blast blew him out of the Humvee.
He was flown to Baghdad, where he underwent five hours of brain/neuro surgery to remove 30 percent of his frontal lobe. From there, he was flown to Landstuhl, Germany, where he spent two days in intensive care before being flown to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., to receive further treatment on Nov. 20, 2004. There, his family saw him for the first time since the incident.
“When we got to Walter Reed, they warned me that he was not the same soldier as when he left,” mom Vicky Ray said. “The doctors told me that he could possibly be deaf and blind but they didn’t know, due to Chad being in an induced coma since his first main surgery.
“When I did get to see him, I cried because he had his whole head intact. I could see staples from ear to ear where they had done the surgery, but I was so thankful.”
The family received some good news shortly after — the bullet had missed Snowden’s optical nerve by millimeters, bypassing any damage to his vision. On Thanksgiving Day, 2004, Snowden awoke from his coma and expressed his desire to walk to the lunchroom to join the other wounded servicemen.
“What a miracle it was, just to see him eating Thanksgiving dinner,” Ray said.
But his journey to healing was just beginning.
On Christmas Day, Snowden was transferred to Richmond, Va., and two months after that, moved to a facility in Dripping Springs, Texas, with the help of financial assistance from the Veterans Administration.
“It was six months of rehab and it was the only rehab that Chad really had,” Ray said.
Because Snowden wasn’t progressing in the program in Dripping Springs, he was moved to Waco and placed in a lockdown psych ward for two years and, following that, lived in a nursing home for seven months.
Due to the partial loss of his frontal lobe, Snowden’s thought process is a little slower than normal, meaning he speaks and acts before the thought process occurs.
“His issues were not addressed appropriately, nor did he go to a proper behavior modification program specific for his type of [traumatic brain injury],” Ray said. “They just treated him like a mental patient.”
In all, Snowden went through eight facilities over the last 10 years, got married and divorced and was incarcerated in Denton County on a domestic violence charge. While going through the legal system, Snowden came in contact with veteran advocate Brian Hayes, a 21-year veteran himself.
Hayes, along with Ray, helped put together a legal team and got Snowden released from prison.
“In Chad’s case, it was a case of domestic violence but he’s not a violent person. A lot of courts today are dealing with veterans with mental issues and they don’t really know what to do,” Hayes said.
After much research, Ray, using contacts from her position as a former Texas state representative for the severely wounded, discovered the Eisenhower Center near Ann Harbor, Mich., a facility that deals specifically with people suffering from traumatic brain injuries.
“They had worked with other severely brain-injured veterans and after I interviewed extensively with them, I knew this was where Chad need to be,” Ray said. “As a behavior modification program, they’re one of the top in the country.”
Ray contacted the Veterans Administration to seek financial assistance for a 12-month rehab program in Michigan, and was informed, via a conference call, that they would not provide funding.
Ray called on the help of the Independence Fund, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping severely injured veterans, which she has worked with and volunteered for the last nine years.
“The founder said they will make sure Chad is taken care of since the VA refused to listen to our requests,” she said. “It’s a year-long program and the cost is around $150,000. The cost is normally higher due to what their program provides, but the Eisenhower Center knew of Chad’s case and said they would match the cost of any other rehab facility out there because they felt they could make a difference.
“This horrific experience has cost my son well over $100,000 over the last two years, just to protect him and get him into the right program.”
After years of bouncing around between facilities, Snowden joined the Eisenhower Center almost two months ago.
“He’s doing very well,” said Hayes, who visits regularly to check on Snowden’s progress. “He’s in a community environment with other civilians like him. He’ll never be perfect — that’s the nature of the injury, but they will continue to work with him over the next year.”
Hayes, who currently has three other clients, said he has seen many cases such as Snowden’s over the last several years.
“The VA has the largest healthcare system, but it’s a one-size fits all,” he said. “With mental health issues, especially of Chad’s magnitude, every case is individualized.
“This is a hometown hero, a war hero, and where he’s at now, he’s getting the care, the treatment and the protocols he needs.”
Anyone wishing to donate to Chad’s cause or contribute to the Independence Fund’s fight for other injured veterans may visit www.independencefund.org or call 843-813-1309.