U.S. Army Sergeant Thomas Kent cannot pinpoint the precise moment when he injured his ankles. “It started back in Iraq; just walking [on] the terrain really loosened up my ankles,” he remembers. Halfway through his second tour of duty in Afghanistan, his ankles had deteriorated to the point that he was unable to patrol or lead his men in high-risk situations. “I would just be walking and my ankles would give out on me,” he recounts. “I wasn’t able to go out on patrol and be there with my team … because I couldn’t walk.” These physical injuries started to take a mental toll on Thomas. “Getting taken off missions [because of my ankles] while my guys were out there was very depressing,” he says.
While in Afghanistan, Thomas witnessed firsthand the horrors of firefights and attacks on his base, experiences that no civilian could understand. While he and his wife, Roseann, spoke as often as possible, a palpable distance emerged between them.
When Thomas came home he was angry, irritable, and in pain. His experiences while serving left him and his family struggling with these hallmark symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Further fueling his anger and frustration was the chronic pain in his ankles. His physical injuries progressed to the point that the once avid hiker couldn’t walk more than a few hundred feet without his ankles seizing up, leaving him in excruciating pain.
He visited multiple military and civilian doctors to address his physical and psychological injuries. He attended counseling at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, but the therapists focused more on his day-to-day life than what lay at the heart of Thomas’ issues. He tried exposure therapy for his PTSD, but it didn’t improve his mood or irritability. “My anger absolutely went through the roof,” he says. “Everything was bottling up inside me.”
For his ankles he wore braces, underwent stem cell treatments, and tried multiple surgeries. Nothing brought relief. The only option his doctors in Georgia had left to offer was to fuse his ankle joints. The procedure would allow him to walk, but would severely limit his range of motion, permanently preventing him from being physically active. “I couldn’t play sports. I couldn’t keep up with [my kids]. It was very hard to just walk on uneven ground. So, my quality of life at that point it was really low. I just couldn’t do anything,” he says. “It got to a point where I literally had a bullet etched with my name on it.”
It was at a Wounded Warrior retreat in August of 2018 that Thomas and Roseann first heard about UCLA Health Operation Mend from another veteran. From there, things moved quickly. Just a month after returning from the retreat Thomas received his first call from Operation Mend, and not long after that they were on the ground in Los Angeles for their initial consultations.
In September of 2019, Thomas and Roseann participated in the Operation Mend Intensive Treatment Program for PTSD and mild traumatic brain injury, where they learned crucial skills for coping with the invisible wounds of war. Thomas credits the cognitive processing therapy and mindfulness practices he learned at Operation Mend as the keys to moving through his anger and frustration.
In addition, the program gave Thomas and Roseann an opportunity to begin reconnecting with each other. And, because Thomas’ physical and psychological injuries had led him to a place of near complete isolation from both friends and family, he was able to build new connections and friendships. “Nobody really understood what we were going through as a couple or individuals. So that made us cocoon ourselves from most people,” says Roseann. Thomas adds, “Before Operation Mend, I had no friends; and I know a lot of people say that, but I literally had no friends whatsoever.” The group environment gave them both the opportunity to meet other veteran families who understood their struggles firsthand. During their three weeks in Los Angeles, Thomas and Roseann cultivated friendships that will last long after they returned home.
To help Thomas heal physically as well as emotionally, the Operation Mend team partnered with UCLA orthopedic surgeons Sharon Hame, M.D., and Nelson SooHoo, M.D., to find a solution for Thomas’ ankles. “Patients come here for options that aren’t available at other institutions,” says Dr. Hame.
Utilizing the advanced diagnostics available at UCLA and their expertise in the field, Drs. Hame and SooHoo were able to determine the underlying instability of his ankles and offer an alternative solution not available at other medical centers that improveed Thomas’ pain without limiting his ability to be outside with his kids.
In February 2020, Dr. SooHoo performed a successful arthroscopy and lateral ligament reconstruction on Thomas’ left ankle. While the procedure was more involved and riskier than fusing his ankles, the reconstruction addressed Thomas’ pain and instability while preserving his range of motion. Thomas and Roseann spent three weeks in Los Angeles recuperating.
Dr. SooHoo planned to have Thomas return to Los Angeles for three postoperative visits in the six months following surgery, but the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic meant that travel was not an option.
Always quick to find out-of-the box solutions, the Operation Mend team worked with Thomas’ podiatrist and physical therapists at his local VA to make sure he received the follow-up care he needed without having to travel. “Even though I couldn’t physically be out there, [Dr. SooHoo] was still very involved in my care,” says Thomas.
Life has changed dramatically since becoming part of Operation Mend, and, says Thomas, “I don’t even feel suicidal anymore. I don’t feel anger towards people who don’t understand what I go through.” Just nine months after his surgery, Thomas is focused on building memories with his family instead of on his anger and pain. When asked what life has been like since the surgery, he eagerly offers a long list of family outings, including a visit to the beach where he was able to walk on the sand for a mile or two picking up seashells, swimming and playing in a local river without worrying about his ankle giving out on the rocky terrain, hiking, and biking. “Just everything that a father and a family would do together outside,” he says.
He and Roseann are in a better place too. “I feel like Operation Mend has changed the narrative of our marriage and our family in general,” says Roseann. “They’ve figured out how to not only make something therapeutic to help you as a person individually, but also to simultaneously help you as a couple to find that common ground, to find a similar interest, to find something that you both enjoy that brings you back together.” For the Kents, that common ground is art. These days you can find them painting together and at museums conversing about what they see in the paintings there. “The two of us can sit there and talk about things,” Thomas says. “We both look at one picture and we see two different things in that one picture, and we are able to talk about it.”
Thomas and Roseann’s healing journey isn’t over. Thomas still needs surgery on his right ankle and his feelings of isolation and disengagement are an ongoing struggle, but Operation Mend has provided the Kents with the skills and support they need to get through the tough times together. Thomas puts it best, “This is a lifelong battle that will never leave you. So you do what you can to fight these demons, and without Operation Mend I feel like I wouldn’t be here today.”