CANBY - TBI, or Traumatic Brain Injury, has been called "the signature wound of the Iraq War," as veterans return home with brain injuries that doctors are only beginning to understand, after exposure to compression waves from massive explosions.
The injury was called "shell shock" as early as the First World War and is often conflated with the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a psychological disorder caused by the reaction to witnessing or experiencing traumatic events.
When Bob Wandersee of Canby went to war in Korea as a forward observer with the U.S. Army 24th Division Headquarters Battery field artillery, the injury was little understood.
Photo by Steve Browne
Bob Wandersee of Canby, right, a Korean War veteran, sits with his wife, Arlene at their home this past week.
Wandersee experienced the symptoms for decades before being diagnosed and treated.
"They didn't know that much about it at the time," Wandersee said. "My dad knew though."
Wandersee joined the Minnesota National Guard and was drafted out of high school. He did his Basic Training in Fort Riley, Kan., and was trained in surveying for artillery at Camp Carson, Colo. He served in Korea during the winter of 1954-55, and returned home to work for his father's contracting business in Minneapolis and marry his fiancee Arlene. Married for more than 40 years now they have six children, and 10 grandchildren.
But Bob Wandersee came back a changed man, subject to nightmares and sudden rages, which are now known as the symptoms of PTSD and TBI.
"Bob's father didn't call it that, but he helped me understand it," Arlene Wandersee said. "When he went into the Army he was the most easygoing guy, and when he came back he was the complete opposite. He'd blow up, people were afraid of him. They didn't know what would set him off. He'd have his good days when you could see underneath he was a good person. Or he could be sitting in a restaurant and fly off, and he wouldn't remember what he did."
What Bob remembers of the origin of his condition was surveying from hilltops, calling down artillery strikes on enemy positions.
"I was there and receiving the shells from both directions over my head from both directions," Bob Wandersee said. "I could feel the compression in my ears."
It is now known that brain injuries can be caused by massive compression waves, or a series of repeated smaller waves, which cause the same kind of injury experienced by some boxers and football players.
Bob Wandersee struggled with his condition, helped by working for his father's business at a job where everybody knew his condition and knew enough not to startle him, and supported always by Arlene.
"We got married after I got back," Bob Wandersee said. "I always say, 'If I was so bad, why did you marry me?' She's stubborn."
Though it was hard at times, and his children always knew their father had a condition of some kind, his family and his dogs helped sustain him through the years it took medical science to catch up with his injuries.
"I'm not a quitter, I'm Swedish," Arlene laughed.
After the Wandersees moved to Canby, Bob Wandersee finally found a psychiatrist in a VA hospital in Aberdeen, S.D., in the '90s who recognized his condition.
"I went to a psychiatrist in Aberdeen who'd been a Marine in Korea," Bob Wandersee said. "He knew right away and put me on some tranqs. Within a few weeks I started feeling better."
Today Bob Wandersee still has therapy and is on medication for his condition. He's also been fitted for a hearing aid which compensates for deafness in his right ear, so he's less likely to be surprised by people approaching him from behind.
"I still get jumpy," Bob Wandersee said, "it just doesn't go away. Three months ago I had a nightmare, I dreamt someone was putting a hand on me and shaking me, saying, 'We've got to get out of here!'"
Bob and Arlene's children are grown now, with children of their own, who understand the price their grandfather paid for his service.
"As for my peculiarities, I've talked to them all about it and they said, 'Oh, we knew there was something.' I was driving to Aberdeen a while back talking to my son, I told him I was going to a psychiatrist. He said, 'Well it's about time!'" Bob laughed.