November 28, 2007 – In a sense, the first chapter of James Sperry’s return home for good is set to begin this afternoon.
That’s when Sperry, 22, plans to drive south from his parents’ west Belleville house to the Jefferson Barracks V.A. Medical Center in south St. Louis County.
There, on the hospital’s sprawling campus overlooking the Mississippi River, he will walk into a plain, three-story structure known as Building No. 50.
On the second-floor, the ex-Marine lance corporal will have his first meeting with counselors at the hospital’s newly opened clinic for Iraq War veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
Sperry is hoping the clinic’s medical staff can prescribe him medicine for his migraine headaches and daily bouts of vertigo — a legacy of the traumatic brain injury he suffered when an insurgent’s rocket-propelled grenade bounced off his helmet in early November 2004, two days into the epic battle to retake the city of Fallujah.
The grenade exploded behind him, fracturing his skull and piercing it with shards from his Kevlar helmet.
Sperry also needs help sleeping. He only gets about an hour of shut-eye a night, and usually that’s interrupted by nightmares from his combat experiences in Iraq, he said.
Sperry traces his sleep problems to the endless stress of life in a war zone, of operating 24/7 for seven months straight.
“I never had a break when I was in Iraq,” Sperry said. “I was always going.”
Worst of all is the emotional numbness that haunts him. It’s a product, he believes, of seeing so many members of his Marine unit die in Iraq.
The worst was when his best friend died in his arms in August 2004 after a car bomb had exploded at a traffic checkpoint they were assigned to outside Fallujah.
“I had no feelings, no emotions,” said Sperry, a 2003 graduate of Belleville West High School, where he earned straight As and starred on the varsity golf team. “It was more like being dead inside.”
Sperry stands as a living testament to the global war on terror’s two signature wounds: PTSD and traumatic brain injury. As each year of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq tick by, the latest research shows alarming trend lines for both injuries.
At least 20 percent of combat vets from Afghanistan and Iraq have been diagnosed with PTSD. Experts warn the percentage of PTSD cases could balloon to 40 percent over the next decade because of the nature of combat in Iraq and the toll of repeated deployments.
As for soldiers and Marines who’ve suffered traumatic brain injuries, that number continues to soar.
The Pentagon has listed 4,471 troops who have officially suffered combat-related brain injuries. But last week USA Today reported that another 20,000 troops who were not classified as wounded in combat had shown signs of brain injuries. And the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force estimates that 150,000 troops — about 10 percent of the troops who’ve served in Iraq — have suffered head injuries in combat.
Sperry has returned to Belleville a very different man from the 18-year-old who shipped off to boot camp in October 2003.
Sperry married his high school sweetheart, Beth — also a former Marine — and together they have an 18-month-old daughter, Hannah.
Provided he makes solid progress at Jefferson Barracks, and he can overcome his short-term memory problems, Sperry hopes to return to school and receive training as a paramedic.
Sperry doesn’t spend much time looking back. Before enlisting in the Marines, he could have accepted one of several college scholarships to play golf.
“I thought about it, but only for a second. Then I thought I’d never change a thing,” he said. “I’ve seen the worst the world can offer, and I feel like that’s something that’s going to make me stronger in life.
“Right now I’m struggling with it, but there’s going to be a time where I’ll be stronger for it.”
Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at email@example.com or 239-2533.