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Justin Constantine

A Few Minutes With Justin Constantine

AHS media relations specialist Vince Lara spends a Few Minutes With retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. and lawyer Justin Constantine, who discusses traumatic brain injuries and the Nov. 1 Veterans Day event at Carle, co-sponsored by the Chez Veterans Center.

To register for the event, go here.

Click here to see the full transcript.

VINCE LARA: Hello. This is Vince Lara in the Communications Office at the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois. Today, I spend a few minutes with Justin Constantine, a Marine Corps officer, combat veteran, and Purple Heart recipient to talk about the upcoming traumatic brain injury event at Illinois.

Justin, so why is this event important to you?

JUSTIN CONSTANTINE: Well, as someone who was injured in Iraq, I still have PTSD and traumatic brain injury. I did go to counseling for PTSD for 18 months, weekly sessions with a psychologist, which are incredibly helpful. I did a number of exercises for my brain as well. So my traumatic brain injury was relatively minor. But those are still issues I will face the rest of my life.

So I'm excited to come to this event because this is a big focus there. And also so I can share my story, I can share techniques that have worked for me to help other veterans and other civilians, frankly, who had some of the same challenges for a number of-- for any of those other reasons, but also to talk about employment and things that my company's is doing related to veteran employment and really different ways to push forward after a deployment, or after life in the military, or after a traumatic experience.

VINCE LARA: Yeah, I mean, some of the things you talked about there, what are the techniques that helped you get-- well, you said you're not past your TBI, but helped you deal with it?

JUSTIN CONSTANTINE: Well, really just, first of all-- and I combined PTSD and TBI mentally, which is not smart to do. But in my mind, they're related. So I'll talk about PTSD first.

And so like I said, I to go to counseling for a year and a half every week for an hour at a time, one-on-one counseling, which has made a huge difference in my quality of life and the lives of people close to it because my wife could tell when I hadn't gone to counseling on a particular week. So that made a huge difference. And I've also been a peer mentor to other folks who have PTSD as well.

But also as part of their counseling, just seeing a professional identifying what's going on with me, with my mind, or my body, and understanding that that is, quote, unquote "normal, natural way" what I've been through after being shot the head in Iraq, and just learning from someone who has worked with other warriors before, who has studied this material, how to just come to terms and what I was going through and recognizing that my life is going to different-- it doesn't mean it's over or worse in any way, just different-- and then some techniques I could use when I am feeling anxiety, identifying situations that cause that anxiety, and then what I could do.

And for instance, one of the-- I know I'm not alone in this, a lot of veterans, including myself, can't really enjoy 4th of July because fireworks are a big problem, which is really unfortunate since it is 4th of July. So I know not to put myself in that environment, not to be exposed to loud noises that like, not to be in large crowds. So that's a triggering event which I avoid.

But also, if I feel myself getting frustrated or other senses on my PTSD, I can-- I learned basic building techniques, imagery, mental imagery, and doing things like that to help get me to a good place. When I worked in a corporate office for a few years, I worked in a cubicle. And I have my back towards the door.

And so I asked my boss if I could put a little mirror on my counter so I can see who is behind me because they're caused me a lot of discomfort as well. So that was easy to fix. So that's all related to the PTSD.

As far as the TBI goes, I did do a program for about a year online called Luminosity, which is really just to help get my memory because that was the main thing it was affecting-- how I was affected from my traumatic brain injury was some memory issues. Such I did that, which was quite helpful.

But also I constantly keep trying to learn and exercise my brain. And that includes a lot of reading. I read about two books a month and continuing formal education as well because I was incredibly fortunate when I was shot in your head. The bullet narrowly missed my brain. But there was a little bit of damage. But you try to exercise it as much as I can.

VINCE LARA: Do veterans often come to you for advice about how to deal with their injuries?

JUSTIN CONSTANTINE: A fair amount, yeah. I developed a name for myself, I guess, in the Wounded Warrior community, two different organizations I'm a part of and just because I was somewhat senior in rank. I was a major at the time I was shot. And so a fair amount of people know who I am.

And so yes, a number do come to me with questions, typically questions over email or even LinkedIn. Sometimes it's a phone or a text. And I'm always happy to provide some guidance. But first and foremost, it is. And my first answer is, seek help that you need and deserve, provide them a different non-profit organizations, or also recommend the VA to coincide that process.

VINCE LARA: What are some of the things that the veterans need to look out for as signs of a traumatic brain injury or some of the symptoms that they need to be aware of?

JUSTIN CONSTANTINE: That's a good question. I think one of the challenges is that especially if we're talking about someone who came back with from a deployment-- let's just assume it's a traumatic brain injury resulting from something overseas or a training accident here in the States-- or training accident anywhere, I guess.

And so first and foremost, they have feel comfortable. They should feel comfortable identifying they went through that experience. And a lot of times, obviously in war, it's hard to do that. There's a high op tempo. There are significant things going on around you.

But, I mean, I was shot. But two weeks before that, I was involved in an incident where I was almost blown up by an improvised explosive device. And we had a protocol in place wherever you are exposed to a bomb like that, you had to go see the corpsman and have a recording.

And so we were fortunate that was in place. That wasn't always the case. And I'm sure in some instances now it's not done. So this requires senior leadership to make sure things are in place, to encourage an environment where soldiers feel comfortable reporting their injury.

But also, again, there is a certain accountability I want service members and veterans to hold themselves to, to go and seek the care that they need. And if nothing else, if for no other reason, than to have that issue recording in your medical record, your official military medical record, because for instance, a lot of times the symptoms don't show up for six months, or a year later. That was the case with me. It was a little bit later. And if that stuff is not recorded, then you will have a tough time with your VA disability claim establishing that.

So you asked me about what are some symptoms they should look out for. For me, it was just that I noticed it right away. I couldn't think of basic words. Things I was trying to communicate, I had a talk around these certain words. So that's how it manifested for me. But with other folks, it can be blurred vision, feeling sick a lot, nauseous, and other typical traumatic brain injury symptoms.

But the underlying message, though, is when you have symptoms or when you feel different than you used to, take care. Veterans have five years of free medical care with the VA. You're entitled to that now. It's the law. So go ahead and seek that care right away and make sure you're utilizing resources around you.

VINCE LARA: You mentioned it took six months for you to see some of your symptoms.

JUSTIN CONSTANTINE: Yeah.

VINCE LARA: Typically, how long can it take? Or is there a long end and a short end of those things?

JUSTIN CONSTANTINE: From what I read, it does depend on the severity of traumatic brain injury. For instance, I mentioned I have a mild TBI. There's medium and severe.

And I'm not sure if there is a difference between the three when the symptoms turn up. But I have heard many times from professionals and others that it's not unusual for six months to a year, and the same with PTSD, before the symptoms start coming up.

So I guess some challenge is for some people-- like my incident was obviously major. It was obvious I was shot. That's a massive event.

But others might not be that way. For instance, when I was almost blown up, the bomb didn't detonate correctly. They put it in backwards. So we were sprayed with dirt and rocks from the street, not shrapnel, which would have killed us if they put it in properly. Six months after that event, I very well may not have connected the two if I had traumatic brain injury from that incident.

So you do have to sit and think, what has happened to me when it's something internal. And what could have caused this? It may not have been something as obvious as a car accident, but maybe some other event that happened. Even if I had fell banged my head really hard or something like that, you do have to think about it to identify what happened.

And you go get that-- in the military and across our country as a whole, we don't really feel comfortable talking about mental health issues for some reason. And so I encourage folks-- I'm wide open about mine. I encourage folks, go have-- if you think you have an issue, go have it checked out. You may have to pay a co-pay. It's worth it.

VINCE LARA: My thanks to Justin Constantine. This has been "A Few Minutes With."

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