Tad and Robyn’s love story reads like an American fairy tale. Tad, the brilliant, funny, easy-going star of his high school football and wrestling teams goes to college on a scholarship, joins the army, and years later reunites with his high school sweetheart, Robyn. They settle down in Omaha and raise two kind, loving, and talented daughters.
Anyone listening to Robyn’s laughter when Tad cracks a joke about his undying good looks would find it easy to imagine the love, humor, and warmth that fills their home these days. However, this is not the whole story. Five years ago, things were anything but “happily ever after.” The fact that it is so easy to see this side of their story today is a testament to the transformative power of UCLA Health Operation Mend and its work to heal the invisible wounds of war.
Master Sargent Tad Steckler served in the United States Army for 22 years as an explosives specialist in Panama, Iraq, Korea, and Afghanistan. If you ask him, his job was to clear bombs off of roads and blow things up—sometimes on purpose and sometimes not. Twenty-two years of repeated exposure to high-intensity blasts took its toll on Tad physically and, especially after the loss of one of his best friends in Afghanistan, mentally.
When he returned home from his last tour of duty, something had changed. The smile that was normally a permanent fixture on Tad’s face had faded. His once affable nature was less so. He was depressed and found himself crying for no reason.
After two years at home, Tad sought help from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. There, doctors diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Twice a week for a year he attended therapy where he would repeat his traumas over and over again in an attempt to dull his reactions to them.
At the end of the VA program, some of Tad’s symptoms had improved, but in a lot of ways things were just different. Robyn describes the process like peeling layers of an onion: they started peeling things off, but as they found coping skills for one problem, another appeared.
The man who sailed through school never having to crack a book now struggled with memory loss and basic cognitive processing. For a while after Tad came home, he and Robyn would ride motorcycles together, an activity Tad had loved since childhood. As time went on, Tad’s balance got worse; moreover, he would get lost and not know where he was. Eventually, they sold the bikes. Tad also was prone to unpredictable fits of anger, blowing up at his family and threatening to leave them over seemingly small, inconsequential things—only to be fine 15 minutes later with no memory of the argument. Robyn struggled to piece together what was happening. She found herself living in fear of saying or doing something that might trigger one of these outbursts. Hoping to protect their young girls, Tad stopped spending time with them. Life felt overwhelming and frustrating and, as is often the case with brain injuries, it was getting worse.
Robyn kept searching for answers before discovering UCLA Health Operation Mend. In May 2016, Tad and Robyn arrived in Los Angeles to begin their journey back to happily ever after. The team at Operation Mend diagnosed Tad with mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI), the result of repeated concussions during his years of service, and enrolled Tad and his caregiver Robyn in Operation Mend’s unique three-week Intensive Treatment Program for PTSD and mTBI, in which both Tad and Robyn received therapy and support. For the first time, Robyn was getting help alongside Tad. While he was in therapy with other veterans, Robyn found herself in a room with other caregivers, able to discuss the sadness and fear of living with and caring for someone with PTSD and mTBI.
Operation Mend worked with them to find solutions that worked for their family. When Robyn expressed frustration with trying to manage a family schedule around Tad’s memory issues, the team at Operation Mend helped Tad feel comfortable with a smartphone. This way, Robyn could set a schedule and Tad could take notes to help him remember things like names.
Through UCLA Health Operation Mend, Tad and Robyn found the tools they needed to cope with both his PTSD and brain injury, as well as the support they needed to start to heal their family. They learned how to communicate with each other and with their girls. After years of withdrawing from his family, Tad was learning how to tell his family what he needed. It was another participant who suggested, “Why don’t you tell the kids?” Operation Mend worked with the couple to make sure that they went home feeling empowered and confident to have that conversation for the first time with their 10- and 12-year-old daughters.
“They got it right away,” Robyn says, beaming with pride about the empathy and understanding the girls have learned by growing up with Tad.
Tad and Robyn completed their three weeks in L.A., but their support didn’t end. They spent the next year checking in with Operation Mend and receiving therapy through telehealth. Tad and Robyn had never experienced this level of follow up anywhere else. It gave them access to the care and guidance that were impossible to get close to home. “You’re never officially out,” Robyn says. “This doesn’t happen anywhere else…we still feel like we can call anyone [at Operation Mend] and they will help us get in contact with who we need to or help us find resources.”
Today Tad, Robyn, and the girls are closer than ever. “It can’t get any better,” Tad says of his relationship with the girls. They are his greatest advocates—they stick up for him and watch out for him. In the midst of their high school volleyball games, which Tad attends proudly in spite of the often triggering noises of bouncing balls and buzzers, the girls will check in from the court to make sure he’s okay and let him know that it’s okay if he needs a minute to step out from the noise to catch his breath. For Tad, this was life-changing.