Easing Access to Care for Veterans With Traumatic Brain Injuries
One in an ongoing series
When 9/11 shattered our world, Carlo Aragoncillo knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life: he wanted to help keep this country safe from harm.
So Aragoncillo did something he thought he’d never do, given that his childhood was dislocated by his father’s transient life as a career Marine: he joined the military. He spent 11 years in the United States Army, including a one-year tour in Iraq.
Aragoncillo is now Veterans Relations Director for the MossRehab Institute for Brain Health (MRIBH), which provides evaluation and treatment to veterans and first responders suffering from the aftermath of traumatic brain injury (TBI) or concussion.
“I spent a year in Al Anbar Province (Iraq), so I’ve had experience on both sides – on deployment and on the civilian side as well,” he says. “It gives me a unique perspective, working with folks who were on active duty or who were in the reserve.”
The MRIBH program welcomes veterans and first responders who served at any time, who were discharged under any circumstances, and who were injured anywhere. It’s a gesture of gratitude with no hierarchy of qualification for the folks who have defended our freedom and safety.
“This program is specifically for people who’ve taken off their uniform,” Aragoncillo says. “We cover the costs of transportation, lodging, meals and treatment.”
The program also provides education for families who may be mystified by their loved ones’ “invisible” wounds.
Aragoncillo’s job is to identify deserving veterans and first responders to be evaluated and treated for TBI in a three-week intensive outpatient program, at no cost to them. MossRehab is one of only 16 federally funded Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems of Care in the United States, making it a center of excellence in the research and clinical care of TBI.
Traumatic brain injury affects nearly 1 in 3 military personnel deployed since 2001, according to reports. TBI and concussion – often called mild TBI – can cause physical, emotional, cognitive and behavioral symptoms.
It’s gratifying for Aragoncillo to be able to help veterans – because he once needed help himself.
After he left the military, Aragoncillo was haunted by demons he didn’t understand.
“It’s not that I was in combat or saw men die,” he says of his year in Iraq in charge of setting up a telecommunications infrastructure for the base. “But you’re in this foreign land and you have no idea what’s going on and you’re trying to keep your people safe.
“We had so many threats of incoming mortars, threats of the base being overrun; ISIS was three kilometers away from our site. There was this looming ambiguity. You have no idea of what’s going to happen next.”
Once he was discharged from the military, Aragoncillo, who has a master’s degree in criminal justice from Rutgers University, became Director of Veterans Affairs for the City of Philadelphia.
He buried himself in work, ignored his relationships and eventually began self-medicating. And he didn’t sleep.
“If you ask a veteran how they’re doing, they’ll say they’re ‘fine,’” Aragoncillo says. “But ask him how he sleeps, and you’ll know how he’s really doing.”
When COVID-19 struck, and the city shut down, Aragoncillo was quarantined at home with his wife and a newborn baby. There was nowhere to run.
“Like many others experienced, it was a real challenge,” he says. “But, having that time at home allowed me to think about my own transition and time in service.”
“I didn’t know I had PTSD.”
Calls to the Veterans Crisis Line led Aragoncillo to treatment through the Veterans Administration. “I got connected with a psychiatrist, with therapy and medication, and things have mostly resolved since then,” he says.
Aragoncillo says he sits in the first meeting at MRIBH with a new patient, while a team of practitioners evaluates him or her to determine the treatment plan.
“I’ve been told my presence in the room is vitally important,” Aragoncillo says. “It helps reduce their anxiety – because I’m one of their own.”