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After skydiving mishap, Army staff sergeant from Minn. takes on traumatic brain injury

Michelle and Brian Grundtner walk along Lake Superior last week. Brian was diagnosed with TBI. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service

CLOQUET, Minn. — When a jump from a plane went wrong, it did so much damage to Brian Grundtner's body that he couldn't even think about what it did to his brain.

"I remember hitting the ground," said Grundtner, 40, who now lives in Cloquet with his wife, Michelle Grundtner. "I remember thinking, 'All right, I'm alive.' I wiggled my fingers, wiggled my toes; those were fine. And I turned my neck side to side, so I thought, 'All right, my spinal cord isn't severed.'

"And then I went to move my torso and I felt — "

Grundtner made a cracking sound with his mouth.

"A friend of mine — she was a long ways away — she said she heard me yell."

It was March 19, 2012, and the White Bear Lake, Minn., native, then a special operations staff sergeant in the Army, had made the jump at Fort Bragg in North Carolina as a refresher ahead of being deployed overseas.

It was a low-altitude jump on a dark night with gusty winds, Grundtner said, and as he floated down he collided with another paratrooper. Both parachutes malfunctioned, and Grundtner lost his bearings. Thinking he was closer to the ground than he actually was, he prepared for the impact rather pulling the cord for his reserve parachute.

He had time to have a conversation with himself, Grundtner said, wondering when he'd hit the ground.

And then he did.

'I would forget'

After first losing consciousness, Grundtner woke up on his hands and knees, he said. Medical personnel got him into an ambulance for a 45- to 60-minute trip to the base hospital. He was transferred from there to the hospital at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where he spent eight days.

Two bolts and a plate were placed in his pelvic area, and for a time he used a wheelchair and then a walker while recovering at his parents' home in Minnesota.

But when he recovered to the point that he could return to duty at Fort Bragg that July, Grundtner started to notice other problems, he said.

"I would sit down to read a book ... (and) the words would turn into a jumbled mass of letters," Grundtner said. "I would forget where I parked my car. If we were having a conversation and somebody came in and interrupted us, I would completely forget what we were talking about."

When he asked, friends said they had noticed.

In late July, he visited Fort Bragg's concussion care clinic. As soon as they heard his story, the clinic's medical personnel knew that he had had a traumatic brain injury (TBI), Grundtner said. In time, they concluded that Grundtner, who entered active duty in 2008 and had numerous overseas deployments, had sustained at least 15 TBIs.

TBIs and the military

Like other institutions, the military is paying increasing attention to brain injuries. A Department of Defense program called A Head for the Future provides resources for members of the military community affected by TBI. It also calls attention to success stories, one of which is Grundtner's.

Since 2000, more than 360,000 service members have been diagnosed with at least one TBI, according to defense department data. The vast majority of those — more than 82 percent — are considered mild TBIs, also known as concussions, said Dr. Scott Livingston, director of education at DoD's Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, in a telephone interview. Grundtner said his own TBI was considered mild.

Among those who experience "mild" TBI, only 15 to 20 percent will have symptoms that persist longer than 7 to 10 days (as did Grundtner's symptoms), Livingston said.

"But even mild traumatic brain injuries are taken very seriously," he said. "A service member who's involved in a potentially concussive event is immediately pulled from that training activity, or if it's a combat-related incident, they're pulled aside so they can be properly medically evaluated and treated."

Personnel at the concussion care clinic answered his questions and helped him develop a road map for treating his TBI, Grundtner said. One of his greatest challenges was sleep — he'd go three nights in a row with only two hours of sleep a night, he said.

The concussion clinic referred him to Brooke Heintz, a social worker and fellow military member.

"It (was) really helpful to me to have someone I could speak to about recovery," he said. "Because I think recovery is sometimes looked at as one-dimensional. ... That one thing affects everything else in your life. And Brooke helped me see that this one thing is sending ripples into other parts of my life. It allowed me to take a closer look at maybe things I had been putting off or things that I had been ignoring."

He learned to improve his "sleep hygiene" by following a more regular schedule, taking time to wind down ahead of sleep, eliminating naps and keeping a "sleep journal."

"I'd just keep a journal next to my bed, and every time I would go to bed I'd pick up my journal and I would just write stream of consciousness, whatever was on my mind or whatever I wanted to let go of from that day," Grundtner said.

Back to school

Grundtner, who had entered the Army reserve after high school and envisioned a full military career, was placed in retirement in November 2013 after going before a medical review board. "You don't really have a choice," he said.

Already possessing a bachelor's degree, Grundtner entered the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota the following autumn and earned his MBA in two years.

He had entered the university's program for disabled students but never took advantage of the help it offers, Grundtner said.

"I'm pretty stubborn," he said. "I don't like to think of myself as disabled. So I'll go to the utmost to be normal. ... Maybe it took me a little longer to read things. Maybe I had to read things over and over again."

Grundtner felt much better by the time he finished his MBA compared with before entering graduate school, he said. He attributes that, in large part, to the woman he met early during his first semester.

Michelle Carvatt, a native of St. James, Minn., was in the second year of the two-year registered cardiovascular invasive specialty program at the Mayo Clinic School of Health Science in Rochester when she and Grundtner met via an online dating site. Even before they met in person, Grundtner told his future wife that he had suffered a TBI.

She researched TBIs and the military experience extensively, Michelle Grundtner said during an interview with the couple last week. She still had some doubts about the wisdom of meeting Grundtner when she drove to the Cities for their first date.

"I got halfway to the Cities and I was like, 'What am I doing?' " she said, laughing.

But they had "an amazing first date," she said. They were engaged 13 months later and married in May 2016 in Two Harbors.

'I can just be real'

Michelle has the ability to push him while always being supportive, Brian said.

"I think that's a lot of that healing from 2014 till today," he said. "Just knowing that no matter what she's in my corner and that I can just be real with her."

After graduating from Mayo, Michelle found a job at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, and then took a position with Boston Scientific that has her spending much of her time at Duluth's hospitals. Brian sells software for IBM, a job that has him traveling much of the time. Both love Lake Superior and hope to remain in the area, they said.

Michelle calls her husband's recovery from TBI ongoing.

"Sleep was one thing that I really notice, and it was more once we got married and we were actually living together that I noticed it improved," she said. "It's still a work in progress."

His ability to converse has come a long way since they first met, and he's less forgetful, Michelle added. He's also better able to manage stress.

Grundtner's willingness to tell his story is meaningful to current military personnel who may be going through the first phases of recovery from TBI, Livingston said.

"That story told by a peer, someone that is a fellow service member or veteran or a spouse is going to ... resonate more with them because they're hearing it directly from someone who's experienced (it)."