Project Victory gives veterans healing, hope


GALVESTON, Texas – As they ease into pool therapy in Galveston, you'd never know two young war veterans were battling serious injuries. That's only because you can't see the battle raging inside their brain. That's where the sights and sounds, feelings and flashbacks live. It's just part of the battle after a traumatic brain injury.

Former Army medical assistant Michael Ryan, 26, keeps seeing the mortar fire hitting his combat hospital in Iraq. Former Navy military police officer Taylor Olson relives the day he was injured on patrol in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They are two veterans from Texas fighting for their lives after returning home from war.

"I was having a lot of problems," Ryan said. "When I first got injured, I didn't know who my wife was."

"It's just constant work internally for us," Olson said. "I didn't leave my house for four or five months."

Both veterans suffer from a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. Violent flashbacks and fear of crowds are just some of the symptoms of PTSD that affect every part of their lives. They said getting help within the system turns into just another frustration.

"I had treatment within the VA and they didn't know what to do with me," said Olson. "They were baffled by my case. They looked at me and threw their hands up and said, 'I don't know what to tell you.'"

But hope comes from inside the Transitional Learning Center in Galveston. 

"There is an enormous gap in the services that these folks require," said Dr. Brent Masel, president and medical director at the Transitional Learning Center. "In fact, it's not just a gap. It's the Grand Canyon."  ?

That's where Project Victory comes in. It's a stop-gap program making a difference in helping veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who are recovering from brain injuries. The program includes intense, 24-hour constant therapy, counseling sessions and rehabilitation. The veterans live there, eat there and become a family.

"The intensity of care that these people need just can't be met by the systems in place," Masel said. "This is not quiet kind of stuff. They're exposed to the noise and they're exposed to other people with brain injuries. Sometimes it's very chaotic. If you limit therapy to an hour here or an hour there, you miss so much."

That's why Masel says Project Victory isn't once-a-week therapy. It encompasses every part of their lives. How important is the program? Both veterans said Project Victory was their last hope. Without it, marriages were in trouble. They said their families told them they didn't know what else to do to get them help.

"Through trials and tribulation, we headed down a path that wasn't very good," said Ryan. "We found this program, and I knew we needed more help."

"Our wives can't handle that," Olson said."They don't know how to turn our war button off. My wife talked to my mom about it and it was kind of an ultimatum for me to come here. They said, 'You need to do something because you're right and you're not getting any better.'"

All the help is at no cost to the veterans. Most visits to Project Victory last at least two months. It's all free thanks to fundraising, grants and donations. The TIRR Foundation in Houston founded the program in 2007 and continues to raise money to keep the program going year after year. 

"This is a wonderful opportunity for them to have premier medical care in the areas of physical therapy, occupational therapy, family therapy," said Cynthia Adkins, TIRR Foundation executive director. "It's a wonderful way to them to heal. I get the most satisfaction out of seeing these men and women heal and go back to some sort of full-functioning life. I think without this program, some of these veterans would end up on the streets."

Just weeks into the program, Olson said he can now face crowds again.

"Being able to go into a grocery store and be there longer than five minutes was a huge step," said Olson. "There's no way we could ever pay for something like this out of pocket. It's just not possible."

Ryan said he finally feels like someone understands what he's going through.

"This is the most progress I've ever made," said Ryan. "A simple thank you doesn't even come close to what this program has already done for me. The progress I've made in just the first two weeks here has been unbelievable."

It's progress and recovery from the battles they can't leave behind. It's a program saving lives, long after the injuries.

For those who help the veterans, it's just part of saying thanks for your service.

"It's our way of giving back and paying them back for what they've done," said Masel. "The kick that comes with doing this is seeing the change and seeing the improvement. Then we see a letter or get a phone call or email from them down the road when they say they're doing this and that. Success for the program is that the funding continues and we're able to keep treating the folks who need the help."

"I think we're doing our part," said Adkins. "It's a win-win for all."