Hometown Heroes: Group aids veterans with brain injuries

March 12, 2017 Updated: March 14, 2017 at 11:36 pm
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Susan Holmes is probram manager of Operation TBI Freedom, which assists Traumatic Brain Injury sufferers in Colorado Springs. She was photographed in her office March 9, 2017. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

At Operation TBI Freedom in Colorado Springs, the label "heroes" is reserved for those who earned it the hard way.

"Knowing that veteran that comes to them has become successful is the only award or reward that these men and women are looking for," said Tom Carr of Craig Hospital in suburban Denver, referring to a slate of case managers who work with veterans and active-duty service members who suffer from brain injuries.

Since 2008, the group has helped 1,500 post-Sept. 11 veterans, most of whom were injured as a result of combat or training. For its work with veterans, Operation TBI Freedom was nominated by Carr and was named one of the recipients of this year's Red Cross of Southeast Colorado's Hometown Heroes awards.

The program aims to meet unique challenges that may remain after patients receive acute medical care.

For some, that means assistance with basics including food, clothing and shelter. For others, it means getting finances in order, learning how to successfully navigate a job interview or receiving help locating mental health services that could save a marriage.

Peer support groups play a prominent role, and veterans - who are not charged for services - can choose their level of participation, whether it's a monthly phone call or regular visits with a case managers.

"It really depends on the veteran," said Susan Holmes, the nonprofit's program manager. "We tailor a life plan. We don't call it goals, because with their backgrounds, if they don't achieve a goal, they feel like a failure. ... We allow and fully understand two steps forward and three steps back."

The group's guiding principle - to provide any service that may be lacking - is the brainchild of Robert "Dob" Bennett, a Denver entrepreneur and former Liberty Media Corp CEO who launched the program after hearing frequent reports about the high number of TBI sufferers who struggled to return to normal, healthy lives after serving their countries.

All five of the group's case managers are veterans, including two former clients.

A shared military history helps earn trust, as well as credibility - a key factor in preparing each client to leave behind the familiar structure of their lives in the service for a civilian world brimming with uncertainty.

"We start off with that veteran model but our goal is to get you to go out in the world," Holmes said.

No veteran is turned away. Even those who do not meet eligibility criteria are generally connected with programs better suited to help.

Operation TBI Freedom's $500,000 annual budget is covered entirely by donations and grants. Last year, the group moved under the auspices of Englewood-based Craig Hospital, which specializes in treating brain and spinal cord injuries, but the program remains in Colorado Springs.

The average stay in the program is two years, and graduates maintain continuing access to events, classes and group discussions.

"It's important to help these men and women find a sense of purpose again," Holmes said.

For more information, or to learn how to get help, visit Operation TBI Freedom's web page at craighospital.org/programs/operation-tbi-freedom.

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Lance Benzel

Legal Affairs reporter

719-636-0366

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