Marine Staff Sergeant Charles (Chuck) Rotenberry was proud to be in front – literally “walking point” before platoons in Afghanistan as Chief Trainer of the II (second) Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) Camp Lejeune Military Working Dog Platoon. In conjunction with Combat Engineers who manipulate metal detectors, these highly trained teams of handler and working dogs clear the path of potential improvised explosive devices (IEDs) with close scrutiny and awareness.
On that day in March 2011 while on a combat patrol, SSgt. Rotenberry assumed the security and over-watch position for the K9 Team; thus freeing up the previously assigned member organic to the unit. His mission while out with the K9 teams was to ensure the 30 teams were performing proficiently; both Marine and K9.
It’s the disciplined practice for those leading the way to follow a very strict protocol to ensure safety throughout entire patrol. This time, one hour into an early morning dismounted (combat patrol) clearing operation, Chuck Rotenberry was providing security behind one of his K9 teams on the front lines. Together they proceeded, carefully clearing the way with highly attentive Marines, a military working dog, and metal detector.
The job requires meticulous attention to detail, walking one after another in the footprint of the Marine ahead. Right footprint, right foot. Left footprint, left foot. Man after man. Slow step after slow careful step.
One misstep was all it took; the Marine behind SSgt. Rotenberry put his left foot in the right footprint, perhaps just barely out of step. The catastrophic explosion that followed not only took both legs but caused many other injuries to the Marine behind SSgt. Rotenberry. Havoc ensued. Shrapnel blew everywhere; Chuck was thrown nearly 10 feet and he lost consciousness before coming to and rushing to the aid of the injured Marine.
After carrying the stabilized Marine nearly 200 yards and running on sheer adrenaline, the K9 Team cleared the path of a landing zone for medics. Chuck Rotenberry and the platoon pushed on with the mission for 6-8 hours more, encountering small firefights and apprehending a high-value detainee.
Upon returning to the small patrol base, a medic stopped SSgt. Rotenberry: “Do you know you’re bleeding from the back of your neck and back?” They cleaned him up, and he was ground MEDEVAC’d where the Battalion Surgeon removed the shrapnel and he was cleared for continued service. That morning, Chuck called his wife, Liz (pregnant with their fourth child) and she became very concerned since “he sounded very bad and said he just needed to sleep”. Four hours later, after learning that Headquarters Marine Corps (HQMC) had notified Liz, he called again to tell her he was injured and had sustained some small shrapnel wounds – he couldn’t remember having called her before.
Two weeks later he was showing blast effects: uncertainty, short-term memory loss, headaches, confusion, and thought he could “just sleep it out”. Chuck pressed on until medics held him back from further combat operations from April to July. MRI and CT scan equipment was scarce, and to the Medical Staff it appeared that his symptoms were surface-only, so no MRI or CT scans were done.
On July 5th at 3am, SSgt. Rotenberry returned home to the States. Liz was told he was okay, and was very proud of his valor in coming to the aid of his buddy and earning a Navy Commendation and receiving the Purple Heart. Chuck got into the driver’s seat of the truck to go home - but could not remember how to get there. Perplexing. That morning at 0800, movers came to relocate them and they “rolled right back into life”.
On July 19th, baby #4 was born. Chuck Rotenberry desperately struggled to adjust to transition from combat environment to the home noise level of the three older children and now a new infant. Liz doubted that Chuck wanted to be with them. He doubted himself, assuming everyone else was “messed up” and Liz knew that something just wasn’t right. They sought and received services from a Navy program called FOCUS (Families Overcoming Under Stress) that gave them a better understanding of PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury and explained (especially to the children) that Chuck’s “invisible wounds” were very serious.
After waiting about four months, he finally got his first appointment in the Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) Clinic on Camp Lejeune. Chuck entered their 16-week program and received physical therapy, balance techniques, learning to schedule appointment reminders and create new habits to compensate – until he was told “there’s nothing more we can do for you”. With the aid of multiple prescriptions (and subsequent side effects and adjustments), he experienced some minor progress, most of which he chalked up as coping methods to counteract or avoid the forgetfulness, crowds, loud noises, and intense migraines. SSgt. Rotenberry, (admittedly) too stubborn to submit to a medical review board, then transitioned from Active Duty to the Marine Corps Reserves; not completing the 8 more years “until his 20” as he’d intended.
Chuck, now a Gunnery Sergeant stayed on as a USMC Reservist and was fortunate to continue a civilian career in his field of expertise. The Veterans Affairs Office determined Gunny to have 100% service-connected disabilities, with Severe PTS and Mild to Moderate TBI. As life continued, Chuck found he could not tolerate other people, getting lost or confused, had constant migraines and even began to shun being around the family he so loved. After getting settled in their new home they relied on the Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC) for medical care, counseling, and caregiver support, but a random event like the popping of a balloon created havoc and breakdown. Life for the last two and half years was a black hole, walking on eggshells and feeling like there was nothing more to do but rely on meds and patience to get them through their days.
It took a major breakdown in March of 2013 for Liz to realize they needed more help… Chuck expressed his frustration with the distress he knew he was causing the family and how it might be better for everyone to be without him. To not have a “visible wound” was breaking him, and this was very, very serious.
As a relentless and resourceful family advocate and dedicated caregiver, Liz researched alternative therapies and experts in Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Among them was Dr. Paul Harch, a pioneer in Hyperbaric Oxygen Treatment (HBOT) which, through increased atmospheric pressure, forces 100% oxygen into the body and blood stream, allowing the brain to begin to heal and recover. (HBOT chambers were originally designed for deep water divers who surfaced too quickly and needed to balance their brain oxygen from “the bends”).
Regrettably, HBOT is considered Off-Label use and not FDA-approved for TBI or PTSD. The Rotenberry’s were determined to find help for Chuck and their family, paying the $18,000 cost for the initial 40 treatments, lodging and food out-of-pocket. This cost was in addition to the brain scans GySgt. Rotenberry required at $1500-2000 each.
Chuck underwent the initial 40 HBOT treatments and almost immediately he improved. After the first week, he noticed that he had not had a debilitating migraine since before the first treatment. He couldn’t believe it. Liz said “A light’s been turned on inside of him”. It was also disconcerting. Chuck was hesitant and not sure how to react; “Is this permanent? How long do I have before they come back,” he thought. Today, he happily shares there are still no debilitating migraines. HBOT is not a cure, but a life changing opportunity that has helped Chuck to learn to deal with everyday signs and symptoms of an invisible wound. Stress is still apparent, and GySgt. Rotenberry still struggles with Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) and Mild-TBI. He remains hyper-vigilant, but is calmer and communicates better, and the family is stronger.
There are pros and cons in any therapy and Liz and GySgt. Rotenberry will tell everyone to do their own research. Yet, their HBOT experience was fortuitous and they learned to share with other families that the “condition was speaking, not the person” to those considering giving up their family relationships. Today, the Rotenberry’s devote their time to sharing their positive experience with HBOT, starting a non-profit, and actively distribute HBOT material, including informative DVD’s, participate in roundtable military health discussions with legislators and policy makers, and they share the success of HBOT in giving GySgt. Rotenberry improved brain function and quality of life.
Recently, the family adopted one of the dogs from the Military Working Dog kennels at Camp Lejeune, who also suffered from PTS. Together, they face their days with greater confidence, a close family unit, and a well-informed, compassionate and articulate team. The Gunny and his wife Elizabeth are inspired; “The Brave and their relentless Caregivers shall no longer suffer in silence nor endure alone, WE are Walking Point for PTSD & TBI.”
For more information on HBOT therapy for PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury contact GySgt. Rotenberry and Liz Rotenberry on Facebook ‘Walking Point for PTSD & TBI’, or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ultimately, they hope to show sufficient clinical evidence to power up and use the HBOT chambers available at every VA facility today.
By Linda Kreter
Also in the December Issue of Homeland Magazine