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Top U.S. Military Enlisted Leader Shares Experience of Stigma Surrounding TBI

Image of A man wearing headphones in front of his computer. Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman Ramón “CZ” Colón-López talks about his personal experience with traumatic brain injuries in a podcast with the Traumatic Brain Injury Center of Excellence. The “Picking Your Brain” podcast focuses on the latest TBI research and clinical recommendations, the effects of TBI on military readiness, veterans, and the loved ones who support their recovery process. (Photo: Air Force Master Sgt. Michael J. Cowley)

Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman Ramón “CZ” Colón-López shared his compelling story of recognizing and getting help for traumatic brain injuries on the Picking Your Brain podcast, from the Defense Health Agency’s Traumatic Brain Injury Center of Excellence.

In an interview with U.S. Navy Capt. Scott Cota, TBICoE branch chief, Colón-López spoke about suffering from multiple TBIs, while pretending everything was okay.

“We tend to hide it pretty good until we cannot hide it anymore,” he said.

He shared his experience with the stigma surrounding TBI diagnosis, as some service members may be hesitant to speak up if they are concerned about their mission readiness. It was that reluctance that impacted Colón-López’s marriage and his overall health.

On the podcast, Colón-López, who was a U.S. Air Force command chief master sergeant before assuming the SEAC position in December 2019, explained how he has sustained up to eight TBIs. Instead of seeking help, he used to drink to excess and look for those “thrills,” − something dangerous to prove he was okay. It was not until he had a mountain biking accident that almost killed him when he realized he needed help. After being diagnosed with TBIs, he got into treatment and is now the most senior enlisted service member, by position, in the U.S. military.

Getting Help for TBIs Starts with Leadership

Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, and senior leaders coming forward to talk about their treatment and medical care can inspire service members to take their own health more seriously.

Colón-López, who served as a pararescueman during his career and has deployed multiple times in support of military operations, is just one of over 458,000 service members who have received a TBI diagnosis in the past 21 years. The Department of Defense has resources to recognize and treat TBI and help service members cope, as brain health is critical to overall mission readiness. Service members and families should be willing to break the silence if you suspect you or a loved one has a TBI, as the sooner you seek help the quicker you can improve your quality of life.

On “Picking Your Brain,” Colón-López and Cota dove into the discussion on health care options available to those with TBIs, as well as the responsibility senior leaders have in addressing the stigma service members may face. “Many will not say anything, as they are afraid of being removed from their unit or being separated from the military,” Colón-López said. However, by not reaching out and asking for help, overall health and relationships can be impacted.

We Must Support the Warfighter

The podcast highlights the Defense Health Agency’s effort to bring more awareness to TBIs and to maintain a medically ready force.

“There are good products that are out there. It’s a matter of us ensuring that we’re messaging about those and getting them out to the broadest audience,” Cota stated. They discussed the holistic approach to treatment and using Total Force Fitness, a Military Health System program that provides access to psychological, spiritual, medical, financial, environmental, and nutritional resources.

Colón-López also discussed some of the causes of TBI, both on the battlefield and in training, stating, “In this position, I have found myself explaining TBI and the effects of it to some senior civilian entities that do not understand how this happens. Most of them assume it’s just either being shot in the head or being blown up in a vehicle by an IED, and they really don’t quite grasp that shooting LAW rockets and Carl-Gustafs, and being on the range firing heavy weapons—all of that stuff actually starts chipping away [at] the health of any brain that is exposed to it.”

Resources, clinical research, education, and trainings are available through TBICoE, a branch of the DHA Research and Engineering Directorate. A Head for the Future, TBICoE’s awareness campaign, has fact sheets, key information about TBIs, and real stories of recovery and hope.

Listen to the Picking Your Brain podcast to learn more about Colón-López’s story, as well as additional episodes featuring experts and real stories about those experiencing TBI.

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