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Johnny Cebak

Photos and text used with permission of
Johnny Cebak.

In May 2005, during my second semester as an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky, I volunteered for a combat duty tour in Iraq. I remember being eager to serve, wanting to use my skill sets where they could be most effective. Unbeknownst to me, however, I volunteered during one of the most violent apices of the insurgency. In Iraq, I functioned as a "front line" combat medic for an infantry/armor company. A culmination of factors, mostly regarding where, when, and happenstance, forced me to use all of my medical training. I was exposed to and treated a wide spectrum of people and types of injuries.

Coming home, I felt that these experiences were better forgotten. While my mind retained images that I wanted to forget, my brain was under constant attack. Roadside bombs and mortars were daily occurrences. It is difficult to recall every individual event because they were simply too frequent. However, I do intimately recall the pain and delirium subsequent to experiencing a vehicular roll-over. During the inversion I lost my helmet and took several blows to the head. The vehicle then sank into a ravine built to receive local sewage. I was partially flung from the vehicle and trapped, submerged in rancid water. Because my skull did not fracture and I had "only minor scrapes and bruises," I was treated medically with the standard of care at the time and I returned to duty the next day.

I hold no nostalgic reverence for these toxic memories, but their potency came close to defining me. I attempted to brush off my experiences out of a desire to return to normalcy, which only led to tormented sleep. Although I tried to be "normal," my life had completely changed. It was clear that I needed to be proactive in healing the damage. I sought intensive therapy which benefited me immensely. However, the extent of my recovery is not the case for every individual returning from battle. Although it may seem, on the surface, as if a Veteran is integrating successfully into society, beneath, the war rages on. The severity and duration of TBI and PTSD are hard to predict. Many factors influence one's recovery: life experience, pathophysiology, context and circumstances regarding the traumatic event, and in my humble experience, this journey is almost universally painful.

My journey was nothing short of exactly that. I have been on this path for almost ten years now, and some memories are just as fresh as when the event happened. It is a very humbling and painful process. But I am committed to understanding all I can about TBI and PTSD. After returning home, I began studying neuropharmacotherapies for the treatment of TBI. It was through this program that I first learned of CDMRP. My mentor at the University of Kentucky had previously served as a scientific peer reviewer for CDMRP, and he informed me of the role of a military consumer at these review meetings. Consumer reviewers represent a unique perspective and contribute knowledge that is not necessarily known directly by the scientists. The review panel integrates the consumer and scientific perspectives for the awarding of grants to fund various research initiatives.

Though I study neuroscience now, I function at these peer review panels as a military consumer reviewer. I feel that the opinions and thoughts of consumer reviewers are well received by the scientific panel members. Oftentimes, a great deal of learning takes place between both parties. Serving on a review panel is both challenging and very rewarding as your contributions can impact the lives of others. It is a beautiful experience to represent those with TBI and PTSD.

I am overwhelmingly humbled by the presence and commitment of the consumer reviewers. The TBI and PTSD review panels on which I serve are populated by amazing men and women. I openly thank them for their sacrifices and appreciate their hardships. Consumer reviewers are a community of people who openly bare their pain for the advancement of others. I am proud to be a part of this effort, to be able to serve my country in this new role.