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NEWS & MEDIA

TILLMAN TUESDAY: Scholar Brian Smith Looks to Help Those Affected by TBI Regain Their Lives

Pat Tillman Foundation Communications   |   By Jill Walsh, Communications Manager   |   May 10, 2016
2015 Tillman Scholar Brian Smith deployed three times throughout his career with the Navy, suffering a TBI. Brian plans to use his experiences through his deployment and injury to help other veterans

Pat Tillman Foundation can’t fulfill its mission to empower military veterans and their spouses without the generosity of our supporters across the country. Nationwide, over 400 Tillman Scholars are striving to impact our country and communities through their studies in medicine, law, business, policy, science, education and the arts. Every “Tillman Tuesday,” we are committed to highlighting the individual impact of a Tillman Scholar, focusing on their success in school, career and community—all thanks to your support. This week we learn more about U.S. Navy veteran and 2015 Tillman Scholar Brian Smith who is working toward his MBA at Harvard University. Having suffered a TBI and PTSD himself during deployments overseas, Brian hopes to someday develop innovative medical solutions for those affected by the same trauma.

HOW DID YOU REACH THE DECISION TO JOIN THE NAVY?

“The galvanizing force was that September 11 happened when I was a junior in high school and I remember it very vividly – that was a big catalyst in making my decision. I was always interested in the military and the Navy in general as my father served in the Navy (four years active, four years reserve), and though none of that was during my lifetime it was something he was always proud of. Joining the military was something I had always thought about but September 11 really solidified my desire to join.

I was exploring several options including enlisting right away and my father suggested the service academies. I decided to apply and was fortunate enough to be accepted to the Naval Academy. I think my only hesitation in deciding to go there was a concern—one that I think a lot of my classmates shared—that the war, the reason that a lot of us felt like we were called to join the service, might be over by the time we graduated. Through conversations with my parents and other mentors in my life, I decided that the Naval Academy was the best option for me at the time and it ended up being a fantastic experience in that I got to learn a little about what the military is like while being in school andhaving a great academic, athletic, and ethical educational experience.”

HOW LONG DID YOU SERVE WITH THE NAVY AND ULTIMATELY WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO SEPARATE?

“I had a five year commitment after the Naval Academy but served a total of eight years. During my time in the service I got to a point where I felt a little bit stagnant in terms of my career progression. After my third deployment to Afghanistan, I was diagnosed with a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). While the deployment was an extremely rewarding experience, it was a very kinetic deployment and traumatic to a certain extent in terms of some of the things we experienced.

After my diagnosis, I began the treatment process for TBI and I was really inspired by the caregivers, clinicians, researchers, and all the people on the business side who were working tirelessly to help people in my situation. They were doing it in a lot of new and innovative ways and pushing the boundaries of science and medicine. It started the decision-making process for me with regard to leaving the service in the sense that I realized that I wanted to be involved in this area of healthcare innovation that I had been so closely touched by. In going through that decision-making process I settled on working at the intersection of Business and Medicine because I felt like I could leverage the leadership experience I had in the military. Also, in Explosive Ordnance Disposal, I often served as the intermediary between the science and research behind explosives, chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons and the senior decision makers in the special operations units we were working for. As a result, I felt I already had some skills I could leverage towards being as successful as possible as early on as possible in my career.”

WHAT WAS YOUR ROLE DURING YOUR THREE DEPLOYMENTS?

“My first deployment was to Afghanistan in 2009. I was with a Counter-IED battalion based out of Southern Afghanistan where we were overseeing and running the counter-IED fight. At that point, during the surge, there was a massive increase in IEDs. I led a team that did post-blast analysis of IED events in order to determine what happened and to ensure that any evidence we passed on was free of explosive hazards.

My second deployment I was based out of Bahrain from the fall of 2010 through the spring of 2011. My team and I responded to contingencies in the region, whether it was sea mines or land-based incidents in the Middle East. I spent most of my time in Yemen and Kuwait. The Arab Spring was going on, so it was definitely an interesting time to be in the region. While in Kuwait we were staged for response to what was taking place in Egypt and were preparing for the potential evacuation of American citizens from the country.

My last deployment I spent a year training with a West Coast-based SEAL team and then deployed with them to Southern Afghanistan for nine months. My team and I were spread out over several locations. Our job was to render-safe and destroy any IEDs as we conducted combat operations with our respective SEAL platoons.

DO YOU RECALL ANYTHING FROM YOUR TRAUMATIC BRAIN INJURY AND THE SPECIFIC INCIDENT IN WHICH IT OCCURRED?

“One of the things people don’t realize when they’re deployed is things are moving so quickly and you’re in the thick of things and you don’t have a lot of time to check in on yourself. Something I noticed toward the very end of my last deployment was that I was having difficulty with my short term memory – which was very unusual for me. I took note of it but we had a job to do so I just kept pushing. When I came home I was flagged during my ANAM (Automated Neuropsychological Assessment Metrics) test and was then referred to the Veteran’s for Brain Injury Center (DVBIC). I was subsequently diagnosed with a mild Traumatic Brain Injury. I should say that I feel incredibly fortunate because there are guys out there who have had brain injuries that are far worse than what I’ve experienced.

At work, I was still struggling with the memory loss and staying on task. I rotated to a staff job at Naval Special Warfare Command where there was also a lot of public speaking involved. Prior to that, I had never had an issue with public speaking but after my injury I was very nervous, would forget what I was saying and had a stutter, which was problematic when briefing admirals, generals, and other dignitaries. About six months later I was also diagnosed with PTSD.

There is definitely some overlap in the symptoms between PTSD and TBI and I think that, in some cases, patients would rather see a TBI diagnosis than PTSD because of the stigma associated with the latter. That stigma, for military and civilian patients alike, is something I’m definitely passionate about working toward changing. I think it’s important that people begin to understand that there are plenty of highly functional and highly productive people out there in society who are affected by PTSD who simply actively treat and manage it as they go about their lives. If that happens, we can eliminate the stigma and get people who may be more hesitant to come forward the help that they need. I’m also cognizant of the need to guard against some potentially negative narratives out there, like the idea that all veterans suffer from PTSD, or the notion that only veterans suffer from PTSD. Veterans actually make up a small minority of the population in the US that suffers from PTSD.”

WHAT TYPE OF TREATMENT DID YOU GO THROUGH FOR YOUR TRAUMATIC BRAIN INJURY?

“I went through treatment that included everything from speech therapy to guided meditation and sleep hygiene. Thankfully, I was able to do everything locally in San Diego where Naval Special Warfare had a ton of great resources that they were able to field toward helping care for people like me. I was able to work with a Naval Special Warfare Psychiatrist who was working closely with DVBIC on TBI and who had a lot of experience with PTSD care as well. In addition to the treatment, I was also able to work as a research assistant on a study that DVBIC was conducting on TBI. It has been helpful to me to engage with and understand the science behind brain injury and post-traumatic stress.”

DURING YOUR DEPLOYMENTS, WHICH OBVIOUSLY WERE VERY STRESSFUL AND INTENSE AT TIMES, WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF THROUGHOUT THAT TIME?

“Because of the bond that’s generated in intense, combat experiences like I was part of, there were aspects that I really enjoyed about my time in the service. I learned valuable leadership lessons about resiliency and about how truly capable the guys I was leading were – as a leader, you can’t do it alone. It’s so important to work as a team and to empower the people you’re leading to get the job done. You have to be that leader that mobilizes the team and keeps them together but it’s also equally important to be a servant leader who really knocks down the obstacles so that your team members can focus on doing their work. Thinking together and creatively to solve problems was critical to being able to do what we were doing successfully. The biggest lesson I learned was that you can’t do it alone – deploying or at home. My wife was a huge support for me throughout my deployment process as well as when I came home.”

WHAT IS THE TREATMENT AND HOPE FOR THOSE OUT THERE SUFFERING WTH A TRAUMATIC BRAIN INJURY AND IS THERE STILL A TREATMENT YOU CONTINUE TO GO THROUGH?

“One of the things that is challenging is that your treatment process is so dependent on you as a person and on your level of engagement with your treatment. Because there is no over-arching cure, there are a lot of things you can do holistically – meditation, yoga, good sleep hygiene, etc. to try and lessen the cognitive burden so that you can use the cognitive function you have more efficiently.

As far as my treatment goes, it is still ongoing but I’ve shifted closer to where I’m attending school. I’ve seen quite a bit of improvement in my symptoms in the past few years and I attribute a lot of that to taking steps like improving my sleep hygiene, doing yoga three times a week and trying to do as much meditation as I can. Those things have gotten me to a point where I feel like I have regained some of the function that I lost. I think one of the big hurdles, generally speaking, is patient engagement—making sure people stay on top of their treatment plan, whether it be for TBI or PTSD.”

GIVEN YOUR EXPERIENCES YOU WENT THROUGH WITH THE TBI AND PTSD DIAGNOSIS, HOW HAS THAT INSPIRED YOU TODAY?

“I was really inspired by the people tackling this issue, not only in the name of helping those in the military but other people who experience physical or emotional trauma. I felt extremely fortunate to receive the quality of care that I received and it really motivated me to want to be a part of developing innovative solutions to improve how we treat the human brain and how we deliver that care to patients.

The Pat Tillman foundation has been a huge part of my translating that desire into something meaningful and achievable. When I attended the Leadership Summit I met a lot of other Tillman Scholars who are like-minded and trying to make the same kind of difference in the healthcare, business, and number of other fields. When you get to a place like Harvard Business School, there is no shortage of distractions like established recruiting processes that start to look attractive because ‘it’s what everybody is doing’. I feel being plugged into the network of Tillman Scholars who are focusing on the same types of issues that I am helps eliminate the distractions and reminds me why I came to Harvard.

Harvard has been a tremendous learning opportunity for me in that I’ve had some opportunities to understand how complex the business of health care is. I’ve also had the opportunity to engage with the recruitment process of companies and get a better idea of the industry as a whole. For me it’s been very helpful in identifying how much more I have to learn in the healthcare industry and the different direction one can go in finding a career. It’s been a challenging experience and has given me a foundation of general business skills and principles that I can apply toward my goal of making a difference in the business of healthcare.”

WHAT IS YOUR GOAL UPON GRADUATION?

“For the summer, I’m interning in Corporate Strategy at Beacon Health Options, a managed care organization that focuses exclusively on mental and behavioral health. I’m really excited to be part of a team that is working to provide people with quality care for conditions like PTSD. I’m also excited to be working in their Corporate Strategy division because it’ll be a great opportunity to learn more about the landscape of the healthcare industry and the opportunities that are out there for improving patient engagement and the patient experience.

I think this internship will be a great set up for my next year at HBS. During your first year at HBS, all of your courses are part of a set curriculum so next year is the year I really get to take control of my educational experience. I’m looking to take courses on innovating within the healthcare industry at HBS and am working to cross-register and take some classes at the MIT Media Lab with their Synthetic Neurobiology Group.

If the internship this summer materializes into a full-time offer, then I think those are some valuable skills I can bring back to Beacon Health Options. At some point, I think those academic pursuits will be helpful in identifying opportunities where we can leverage some of the innovation that is going on in neuroscience and neurotech to build scalable businesses that get innovative care to the most people possible. Down the line, my goal is to lead a company that, in one way or another, helps people to knock down the obstacles presented by TBI or neurocognitive disorders so they can focus on whatever it is they do best. That could be within an existing company like Beacon or it could be something more entrepreneurial.”

HOW HAS THE TILLMAN SCHOLARSHIP HELPED YOU NOT JUST FROM A FINANCIAL PERSPECTIVE BUT ALSO ENABLING YOU TO DO THINGS YOU MAY NOT HAVE OTHERWISE HAD THE OPPORTUNITY?

“The way things looked when my wife and I arrived in Boston, there was just no way we could’ve done this without the Tillman Foundation. More importantly, the Tillman community piece has been huge, especially here in Boston. Being part of this community is a good way of grounding yourself – you’re around other scholars talking about their ideas and keeping one another honest and reminding each other of why you’re doing what you’re doing in the classroom. The biggest thing for me is the community of scholars who help keep me grounded and honest and can relate to me. It’s also a tremendous resource being connected with other Tillman Scholars and the staff at the Foundation who are always willing to lend a hand to whatever it is you’re working on.”

PLEASE SHARE SOME INSIGHT ON YOUR SOCK PROJECT YOU’RE WORKING ON IN SCHOOL.

“In the second semester of your first year, there’s a required course called Field 3 where in the course of 15 weeks you start a business and you’re judged on the viability of that business. Some people end up continuing to run the business afterwards where for others it ends at 15 weeks.

My group decided we wanted to give back and do something meaningful within as short of a timeframe as possible. A couple of guys in our group have considerable experience in the apparel industry, so we looked at a few different types of products and decided to start with socks because they represent the fastest growing segment in men’s apparel. We decided to work towards helping a veterans’ cause and learned that the New England Center for Homeless Veterans has a shortage of winter socks. We felt like a one-for-one business model really resonated given our product and charity objectives. For every pair of socks purchased from Charlie Mike apparel, a pair of warm winter socks will be donated to the New England Center for Homeless Veterans.

The project has been an amazing learning experience about getting an entrepreneurial venture off the ground. The socks are selling really well, and I’ve been lucky to work with a great, capable team that really cares about veteran’s issues. Going forward, we see the company expanding into other areas of men’s apparel and addressing other veteran’s issues”