Ted Bittle didn’t expect it to happen so quickly. He didn’t see the suicide bomber sneak up on him. On April 10, 2003, on his first day in Baghdad, Navy Corpsman Ted Bittle and the Marine unit he was working with were clearing a bunker across the street from the stadium where authorities suspected Saddam Hussein was hiding.
Ted bore the brunt of the suicide bomb. The shrapnel broke the corpsman’s right eye socket, collapsed his sinus cavity, and he sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) as a result. However, his TBI wasn’t discovered until several months later.
After rebuilding his face and caring for his physical injuries, the military sent Ted home on convalescent leave. Thankful to be alive, Ted was happy to be home with his wife Denise and his son Ari, who was seven months old at the time. His symptoms never went away, Ted experienced ongoing pain, chronic fatigue, depression, syncope and seizure-like activity, imbalance, problems with his right leg, and violent mood swings.
As a combat medic, Ted was well-versed in medicine, but didn’t put together that he had a brain injury. He struggled to find answers to his ongoing challenges. His anger often got in the way of getting medical personnel to attend to his needs. “I wasn’t communicating right or effectively. Every crack that was available to slip through, I slipped through,” said Ted.
“We traveled several times from New York to Bethesda Naval Hospital to see the doctors. They were trying to figure out what could possibly be bothersome to the point where Ted was having seizures. He was forgetful and he was having facial pain. After seeing a number of doctors, it wasn’t until November or December that we received the diagnosis of traumatic brain injury,” said Denise.
Because of the delay in diagnosis and Ted’s struggles with military paperwork, the couple is currently fighting to rework his disability status. He is unable to work, and gets easily frustrated with day-to-day tasks.
“I would have rather lost my hand than the stuff from my brain. Things I used to do with ease, now I go at and go at, but I can’t make it happen. It’s like solving a puzzle I’ve solved a hundred times before, but now I can’t figure out where the pieces go. That’s my life,” said Ted.
One of the toughest transitions for Ted has been going from the person who provides help, to the one who needs help. He has a long military history, serving with the Army, Navy and Marine Corps. He saw active duty at the Pentagon during Desert Storm, and his service to the community didn’t end between wars. In the mid nineties, he obtained a degree in Psychology, and worked as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT). His last job before returning to the military was as a substance abuse counselor at the Covenant House in New York City where he worked with homeless teens.
As the second World Trade Center tower fell on the morning of 9/11, Ted grabbed his medical bag, hopped on his bicycle and rode to Ellis Island where he took the first rescue boat to the twin towers. He did not know at that point that two of the planes involved in the terrorist attack were from United Airlines, where his wife worked as an airline attendant. “We both were in shock for a long time,” said Denise.
Two months later he entered the Navy as a corpsman with the goal of becoming a combat medic. At the time of his injury he was stationed and training with the Marines. “Things didn’t turn out exactly as I wanted them to, but I’d do it again without any regrets,” said Ted.
He was medically retired from the US Navy on August 17, and the couple recently moved to Allentown, Pennsylvania to be close to Denise’s family while they figure out how to map their new life. They considered moving back to Minnesota, where Ted spent part of his childhood, but were worried that the extreme cold during the winter might aggravate Ted’s headaches.
Denise was forced to take an extended leave of absence from United Airlines. She looks forward to flying again, but the time demands of a flight attendant’s job have proven too much after Ted’s injury. “Ted use to be very independent. Now I have to take time off of work in order to help support him and our son,” she said.
The couple takes their son out frequently, to get out of the house and escape feelings of depression. “It can be a hard life if you make it that way. But our son makes it easy. He brings a lot of joy into our lives, and we like to do things for him,” said Denise.
For now, the couple is getting adjusted to the changes in their life after TBI. “The Ted that I knew and married died in Iraq. The Ted that I still love and care for is a very different person right now.”
Sharon Rolenc is the Public Awareness Director at the Brain Injury Association of Minnesota and can be reached at 612-238-3226