Joel Ellenbarger walked in to a U.S. Air Force recruiter in 2007 looking for a chance to serve his country and fly. When that recruiter seemed uninterested, a dejected Ellenbarger walked across the hallway and found a U.S. Army recruiter more than willing to have him sign on the dotted line.
Trained as a medical professional, Ellenbarger served as a medic on a Joint Task Force Route Clearance Team charged with securing travel lanes for coalition forces throughout the unforgiving and IED-laden roads of Afghanistan. Simply put, while others seek to avoid dangerous IED experiences, Ellenbarger’s team was charged to locate and remove them, every day, for an entire year. Finding the comforts of safety for Ellenbarger and the team was never an option.
Leaving the service and the battlefield behind while relocating to a new city left Ellenbarger isolated and struggling to deal with everyday activities and relationships. A medical discharge for injuries sustained during his tour in Afghanistan left Ellenbarger broken and living with TBI, muscular injuries, hearing loss and PTSD.
“I was a train wreck. I wasn’t sleeping and kept myself locked away,” said Ellenbarger. “Everyone I knew kept telling me to get help, and as an Army medic, acting on this was really hard because I was always the one giving help.”
Fearing a stigma for seeking help and watching negative media reports, Ellenbarger’s road to getting much needed help at VA spanned nearly a year.
“I ruined all of my relationships,” said Ellenbarger. “I let my fears and news on television hold me back. I should have come to VA a lot earlier.”
Connecting with local VA services and Vet Center, Ellenbarger began to physically and mentally rebuild the person he once was by using systems designed and tailored to his specific health care needs.
He was assigned a VA social worker and counselor to guide him through the process. Ellenbarger began treatment for PTSD, was fitted for hearing aids and got solutions for better, restful sleep.
“I’m a lot better than I was when I first walked in the door. There’s no stigma for getting help and I like the fact that even when I’m not physically here, the staff is reaching out and making sure I get connected with what I need to heal,” said Ellenbarger.
He is the first to advise his fellow Veterans not to follow the route he did and to seek help from VA to help them to find their new normal in society.
“VA is the only resource tailored to us Veterans,” said Ellenbarger,who recently completed his 40th appointment in six months at the Dallas medical center. “The staff and the Veterans who use VA understand me, what I went through, and what I need to get where I want to be. It’s a comforting feeling.”
To enroll in VA healthcare and investigate the benefits you have earned as a Veteran, visit www.va.gov.
About the author: Jeffrey Clapper is a public affairs specialist with the VA North Texas Health Care System