Rough road back for injured North Highlands veteran

02/21/2012 12:00 AM

02/21/2012 4:11 PM

North Highlands soldier Thomas Kayl knew coming home after a third tour overseas was going to be tough.

Kayl, 29, sustained a traumatic brain injury in July when his Army tank-hauling vehicle in Afghanistan's Helmand province was stuck by a blast "big enough to crush my truck."

"When the IED went off, my head hit the side of the truck and basically gave me a severe concussion," he said. "I lost consciousness."

After several months of recovery in Afghanistan and Fort Bragg, N.C., Kayl was ready to head home to continue physical and psychological treatment for his wounds, go back to school and prepare with his wife, Graciela, for the arrival of their second child in August.

They left North Carolina on Feb. 8 and on their second day on the road were in a traffic accident that destroyed their vehicles.

About 90 minutes outside of Birmingham, Ala., Graciela Kayl checked her rear-view mirror and saw a black truck coming up fast. "The first thing I said was, 'We're going to get hit' " she said Monday. "I knew."

Her Nissan Altima was crushed beyond repair. She and her young daughter were spun into a ditch. Meanwhile, the black truck that hit them continued forward and struck the vehicle operated by her husband and father. They were towing the couple's other car and a motorcycle that Thomas had purchased to ride on his return with a veterans group who honor fallen and returning soldiers.

Despite that setback, Thomas Kayl got to have his "perfect" homecoming last week when the volunteer Patriot Guard Riders accompanied him along the final miles to North Highlands.

Now the real challenge awaits.

Like many of the thousands of veterans living in the Sacramento region injured in Iraq and Afghanistan, Kahl has had to adapt to civilian life.

He enrolled in an automotive program at Universal Technical Institute in West Sacramento, hoping to channel his love of cars into a job working on Porsches.

The Kayls plan to stay with his wife's parents to save money while he attends school and Graciela tries to get a job with San Juan Unified School District.

Readjusting to family life and dealing with the physical and psychological tolls of war has proved difficult.

Thomas Kahl suffered significant memory loss from his injury, and he sometimes gets disoriented while driving. Nightmares interrupt his sleep and symptoms of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder cloud his days. Migraines hit several times a week and can last for days.

Memory is an issue. "Some important stuff I keep in my head, but some things just aren't there anymore," he said.

Many of the psychological issues began after his first tour in Afghanistan, though he initially didn't seek help. He served a second tour in Iraq before his last stint in Afghanistan.

"I just said, 'Oh, I'm fine, I'm fine.' There is a persona, you don't want to be the injured one at work," he said.

His return has also been an adjustment for Graciela, who finds that "little things overwhelm him."

"I'll be talking to him and he's just like, 'I don't know what you're talking about,' and I'll just have to kind of refresh his memory," she said. "Some stuff he'll get and some stuff he won't remember.

"But I'm not just going to get upset," she said. " You just have to help him, just help him through everything."

The couple met on the blacktop at Don Julio Junior High School in North Highlands. Their long friendship and seven-year marriage have helped them get through the stresses Thomas' deployment has created.

"If we weren't strong before, we're definitely stronger now," Graciela said.

Thomas Kayl was awarded a Purple Heart for being wounded in the explosion, which also injured his colleague who was driving the truck. Many of his close friends, he said, are still on active duty. Despite his experiences and injuries, he plans to continue to serve in the U.S. Army Reserve.

"I ain't dead yet," he said. "Might be injured, might not be able to remember a lot of things, but I'm not done serving my country yet."


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