After 15 months serving in Iraq, the meaning of life and death had changed.
When Jason Emery returned from his service with the U.S. Army, he was ready to come home and resume the life he had left behind.
But he was no longer the same person as before Iraq. Post-traumatic stress disorder shattered his life, and he had trouble relating to people and handling the stress. Eventually, he didn’t care if he lived or died.
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“Over there, you get used to the idea of dying, and that sticks with you, even when you come home,” he said. “Death is so prevalent that you’re OK with it.”
Emery’s recovery started with an experimental treatment to heal the brain, a process that he believes saved his life. Now he wants to ensure other Indiana veterans have access to the same opportunity.
For the second year in a row, Emery and his family will embark on an effort to help veterans overcome post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. The Healing Our Heroes ride will generate funds to sponsor Indiana veterans to receive hyperbaric oxygen treatment in Colorado.
They have partnered with the American Legion Riders Chapter 182 as well as with a number of southside businesses for a fundraising motorcycle ride Saturday.
The ride will start at 9 a.m. at Southport Harley- Davidson, criss-crossing central Indiana before concluding at Southeastway Park at 3 p.m. A free meal for riders will be provided by K & M Catering of Mooresville.
Emery’s problems started almost as soon as he returned from his tour of duty in 2005. His service had changed everything about him, from the way he carried out his day to the way his brain assessed everyday situations.
“You don’t even know the difference in yourself until you come home and realize you don’t fit in society,” he said. “Your friends, no one can talk to you. There’s that unspoken barrier.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder made him paranoid, shattering his sleep patterns and made day-to-day life unbearable. He struggled with alcohol and substance abuse.
Emery tried to work with the Veterans Administration on treatment and was provided with multiple medications to address symptoms such as anxiety and nightmares.
But they only made him feel worse, without solving any of his problems. When he tried to cut himself off from the medication, Emery started to feel panicked and suicidal.
“It took 10 years for us to work on this. Jason came home, and it just got worse and worse and worse,” said Brenda Berry, Emery’s mother.
The climb to regain a foothold in his life started when the family learned about the potential of hyperbaric oxygen treatment on patients with brain trauma.
The concept was initially developed to help heal deep-sea divers afflicted with the bends. But researchers have found that the process can have a wide-ranging effect on many kinds of chronic wounds by delivering oxygen to areas of the body struggling to get enough of the gas.
The family worked with the nonprofit arm of the Rocky Mountain Hyperbaric Institute in Louisville, Colorado, which helps veterans and others with the treatment. They raised the more than $5,000 needed for the treatment and made their way to Colorado.
Two times each day, Emery would do his “dives.” The technicians at the treatment center placed him in a chamber that simulated 1.5 atmospheres, an air pressure equal to 1,800 feet below sea level.
At that point, Emery would put on a mask and breathe 100 percent oxygen for one hour. His capillaries opened, allowing for more oxygen to flow through the body. Pathways in his brain opened up, and his synapses started firing more quickly and efficiently.
For Emery, the treatment stimulated memories that he had blocked out. Though those memories were both positive and traumatic, addressing them with a counselor allowed him to start to rebuild his life.
“Not to say you get all of your old memories back, but you go leaps and bounds beyond places you had before then,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of my old memories back, and I can talk without stuttering again.”
He did the treatment 40 times during four weeks. Afterwards, he committed himself to sobriety and devoted himself to art and music. Medication-free, he feels better than he ever has since before he left for Iraq.
Emery’s success in the program convinced the family to help other veterans access the treatment if they want it.
The Veterans Administration will not pay for hyperbaric oxygen treatment, leaving veterans to cover the more than $5,000 costs to go through the program.
So they decided to help fund it themselves.
Berry and her husband, Lee Berry, started the Healing Our Heroes ride on the southside in 2015. They teamed with the American Legion Riders Post 182, based in New Palestine, to organize the ride.
The event raised $6,800 to fund two Indiana veterans to receive the hyperbaric treatment in Colorado. This year, they want it to be bigger, with more sponsors and more money raised.
“We want to send as many veterans as we can,” Brenda Berry said.
Emery, Berry and her husband, Lee Berry, have been working tirelessly for the past two years to raise awareness of the hyperbaric treatment. Emery spoke before the Indiana General Assembly in early 2016, lobbying to include funding for hyperbaric oxygen treatment into legislation addressing injuries for veterans.
Though that legislation failed to pass, they intend to continue working with politicians. They would like to see a facility in Indiana, so soldiers locally can more easily access it.
Emery acknowledges that the hyperbaric treatment isn’t like waving a magic wand that takes away all effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. But in order to properly treat those mental issues, the brain has to be primed to function properly again.
“This has to come first. If the brain isn’t working right, how are you going to fix how you’re thinking?” he said. “I had to do this before I could do anything. I didn’t know how bad I was until I got better.”
Healing Our Heroes fundraising motorcycle ride
When: Registration from 9 to 10:45 a.m. Saturday. Kick-stands up at 11 a.m.
Where: Ride starts at Southside Harley-Davidson, 4930 Southport Crossing Place, Indianapolis.
What: A police-escorted motorcycle ride to raise funds to treat veterans with traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder through hyperbaric oxygen treatment. Ride will conclude with games, prizes and an auction at Southeastway Park.
Cost: $20 per rider, $10 for passenger
Benefit: All proceeds will be donated to the Rocky Mountain Hyperbaric Association for Brain Injuries, Healing our Heroes Program, earmarked for Indiana veterans who need the treatment.
Organizers: American Legion Riders Chapter 182
Sponsors or donate: Contact Jason Braun, American Legion Riders Chapter 182 director, at 317-498-7020. Donations may be mailed to Amy Rawlins, Treasurer of American Legion Riders Chapter 182, 5101 W. 950N, Carthage, IN 46115.
Information: For any veterans or family members interested in learning more about hyperbaric oxygen treatment, contact Brenda Berry at 513-280-1817 or Jason Emery at 317-448-8043.