It’s noon on Monday in Ottawa, Kansas, and tornado sirens begin their shrill whistle throughout the city as part of a weekly test.
In the car on their way home from Walmart, Gina Hill ’96 sees her husband, Staff Sergeant Allen Hill, tense up and “leave” as he’s transported back to Iraq, where the tornado sirens become enemy fire and roadside bombs blowing up his convoy. Gina quickly calls her father for help, thinking, “If we can only get him home, he’ll realize where he is and the flashback will be broken.” The house, however, serves as another trigger, and Allen assumes combat mode, searching every room to clear the house of enemies while his two children cower in the corner. Finding no combatants, Allen curls up in a “take cover” position and remains there for three hours, followed by three days in bed.
So is the life of a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) victim and his family. Always on edge, always wondering what the next trigger will be, crying for help for the “invisible injury” that plagues each of their lives in different ways.
For Allen Hill, who suffered a traumatic brain injury from a roadside bomb in November 2007 just weeks before his return from a second tour in Iraq – and for his family – help and healing have come in stages through a number of means, and through many dark and trying times.
Upon his return to the U.S., the family sought help through Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., before returning to Kansas in March 2008. Allen then worked through his Arkansasbased Warrior Transition Unit to coordinate services and treatment locally. But Gina didn’t rely on their resources alone to help Allen. Becoming his strongest advocate, she left no stone unturned in seeking help for his recovery.
The first resource she found was a program – Puppies Behind Bars – that uses inmates to train puppies to assist PTSD victims in managing their episodes and keeping them in reality. In February of 2009, Allen received Frankie, his yellow Labrador Retriever service dog. “Frankie has been a huge help in gaining my independence,” said Allen. “She allows me to participate in life instead of being a spectator.”
But even having Frankie wasn’t enough, early on, to help Allen turn the corner. So the Warrior Transition Unit sent Allen to Laurel Ridge, an in-patient psychiatric hospital in San Antonio, Texas, in June of 2009. Allen spent eight weeks in treatment while his family stayed in a nearby hotel and visited him daily. It proved helpful, and the couple saw some progress upon Allen’s return to Ottawa in August.
It wasn’t long, however, before things began to spiral downhill again.
Living near a rock quarry and train tracks, the blasts and noise began to trigger regular PTSD episodes. With no hope for further treatment, and the possibility of having to live away from his family in a state facility, Allen became despondent. Even one of the advocates Gina worked with told her, “Gina, guys like Allen wind up dead or in jail.”
“Almost every day Allen told me, ‘I don’t think I can do this anymore,’” said Gina. And when he learned of the shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, on November 5, 2009, by a fellow serviceman, it was more than he could take. He tried to take his life.
“Before Ft. Hood, the military base was the one place I felt completely safe,” said Allen. “After Ft. Hood, I didn’t feel safe anywhere, and I felt I could no longer rely on fellow service members because one had turned. I know that one bad apple doesn’t spoil the whole lot, but at the time I felt a huge sense of betrayal.”
The couple sought help through the Veterans’ Administration (VA) in Topeka, Kansas, but after six weeks of trying to secure services, the Hills were informed that Allen was too severe for the VA to treat. Caught in a bureaucratic black hole, the Hills discovered that their private insurance and Medicare wouldn’t pay for Allen’s treatment because the VA has a PTSD treatment program. So when the VA refused him services with no alternative options for treatment, in Gina’s eyes, “They sent him home to die.”
Knowing that the episodes would continue to escalate as long as they lived near the quarry, and understanding the instability of Allen’s mental state, finding help quickly was critical.
Frankie, in a round-about way, proved to be the source of their solution.
Supporter and advocate for Puppies Behind Bars, actress Glenn Close met Allen and Gina through her work with the program. In May 2009, Close had used Frankie and Allen to showcase Puppies Behind Bars on the Oprah Winfrey show. Close soon became Allen’s personal supporter and advocate, and it was through one of her contacts that the Hills learned of The Pathway Home, a non-profit residential treatment program in California, which allows patients to stay as long as needed. With Frankie by his side, Allen was able to take the next step and go to California for further treatment in September of 2010.
There, Allen received treatment that was tailored to his particular PTSD symptoms. Through detailed education, a multi-faceted recovery approach, and activities like rock climbing, hiking, and bowling, Allen learned how to re-engage in everyday life. And since it was not a lock-down program, Allen could leave the facility in the evenings with Frankie and a “battle buddy” to put into practice what he had learned during the day, explaining during classes the next day how or if the theories worked. “They listened to you,” said Allen. “If the concepts didn’t work for my particular situation, I could work with the facilitator and other residents to brainstorm ideas and determine another course of action.”
Allen was in California for 11 months, and the Hills were very encouraged by the strides he made. They were discouraged, however, knowing that he couldn’t return to his family because of the location of their home and the triggers that remained. Glenn Close again served as a solution to their problems when she nominated the family for a new home through ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (EMHE) television show.
On July 31, 2011, when Ty Pennington yelled “Good Morning Hill Family” through his megaphone, Gina and her two sons, Makale, 15, and Dreyson, 8, were whisked away to be reunited with Allen for the first time since he left for California, knowing that on their return, they would have a brand new home built specifically for Allen’s needs.
During the first week of August, and hottest week of the year, the Extreme Makeover: Home Edition team, M.A.C. Corporation, Canyon Creek Construction, LLC, Bring Change 2Mind, Operation Finally Home and countless volunteers from Ottawa and the surrounding communities came together to build the Hills’ new home. Ottawa University was also critically involved.
Located in Wheatland Estates three miles outside of Ottawa, the property is large and quiet. The home features extreme soundproofing throughout, open living spaces, glassed hallways for visibility, and a quiet room for Allen to retreat to. Not forgetting Frankie, the team built her own living quarters and an outdoor doggie water park adjacent to the family’s swimming pool. Also in the back yard is a 100-yard stretch of track, complete with OU hurdles, for Makale to practice as a dedicated track runner. It also gives Allen the opportunity to see Makale in action, something he has missed a lot of due to the PTSD.
“The house is all we hoped it would be,” said Allen. “It gives us the refuge, the comfort, the quiet and the safety I need. I really like the quiet room – I use it daily. What I like about the whole house is that it’s not so big that you get lost, but it’s big enough that everyone can have their own space. And our neighbors have been wonderful.” Through everything that the Hills have experienced, life is beginning to resemble normal again – even if it’s a “new” normal.
What Now? Fighting the Stigma of PTSD
Could the Hills have imagined the life they have now just three years ago? “Never in my wildest dreams,” said Allen.
Throughout the process of addressing Allen’s recovery needs, Gina has found herself in a role that has, in essence, become her new job. All that she has learned about PTSD, about resources, about pitfalls, etc., she is now sharing with other PTSD sufferers, their families and the general public around the country.
By making presentations to civic groups; initiating the Silent Siren project; advocating at the local, state and national levels; and blogging about their experiences, Gina has made it her mission to educate others and fight the stigma associated with PTSD.
“We know that Allen’s life was and is in God’s hands,” said Gina. “When he was injured, I was instantly like ‘God has plans for you.’ That’s what has always given me my hope and a lot of my strength. God didn’t save him to come home and be a shell of the person he used to be. He has plans for him and we just have to get to that point. And it requires work on our parts. We’ve learned to appreciate the struggles because we wouldn’t be who we are today without them.”
The Hill family also recognizes the incredible generosity and blessings that have come their way throughout this process. As a result, giving back is now an important part of their family’s mission. Gina’s advocacy and education efforts are a major part of that. The couple also regularly counsels with individuals and families and helps them with resources, treatment, and personal issues. As a family, the Hills traveled to Joplin, Missouri, in October, to do for others what was done for them. They assisted Extreme Makeover: Home Edition in building seven homes for victims of the devastating tornado that destroyed much of that city on May 22, 2011.
What else is in store for the Hill family? “We’re looking to achieve some balance in our lives,” said Gina. “We will be working at staying healthy and hopeful as a family, as well as individually.”
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