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'Point man'

by BILL BULEY
Staff Writer | April 25, 2010 9:00 PM

COEUR d’ALENE — Ron Grigsby didn’t know the man who bought him and his wife and sister drinks the night after an awards ceremony in which he was honored.

But when he went to thank him for the Coke, the man looked Grigsby in the eye and squeezed his hand.

“Bulldog, I was there that day. I watched you die,” he said.

The ever-tough Grigsby stopped, stood and stared. Then a big smile broke out and he gave the man a hug.

“He thought he’d never see me again,” Grigsby says.

The 48-year-old Hayden man did die that day in Iraq. Four times. Each time, they brought him back.

“I went down for the count that day. They had to keep jump-starting me,” he says with a little laugh. “That’s what I call it.”

Grigsby was nearly killed March 21, 2007, while working as an independent contractor for Blackwater in the Middle East. He was part of a convoy, assigned to protect a convoy, when it was hit by enemy fire. The blast threw him more than 40 feet. His helmet was caved in an inch and a half. He suffered multiple injuries that included a broken neck and a traumatic brain injury.

He was flown to Germany, then spent months in hospitals in Idaho and Washington.

“I didn’t wake up until I was en route from Harborview in Seattle to NIACH (Northern Idaho Advanced Care Hospital) in Post Falls,” he says. “I woke up in the back of an ambulance and I was scared. Then at NIACH, I would have delusions I was a prisoner of war. It was pretty ugly.”

But the resilient 5-11, 235-pound Grigsby knew he wasn’t quitting. He wasn’t about to die, not yet, not when his type-A personality kicked in.

He would relearn everything. To walk, to talk, to eat, to drive, to shop, to cook, to communicate.

He did them all.

“I attack things,” Grigsby says.

As if to prove it, he pulls up the sleeve on his left arm to reveal several tatoos. One says “Death before dishonor.” Another, “Bulldog’s alive day.”

Grigsby’s call sign was Bulldog, a moniker he liked since he saw John Wayne in “The Green Berets.”

He says he’s not the same man today as the one who went to Iraq. But he remains determined to cope with his brain injury, move past it, and help other veterans who suffered similar injuries.

It’s what led him to start the North Idaho Brain Injury Foundation support group.

“I’m the front man,” he says. “I’m the point man for the rest of the wounded warriors coming home. And I will advocate for them.”

Back from the brink

Grigsby, who has 14 years in law enforcement and was a paratrooper with the U.S. Army, moved to North Idaho from Southern California in 2004. In 2005, he went to work for Blackwater.

His job was to protect people.

“We’re not offensive. We are defensive,” he says.

He can’t recall much of the blast that sent him flying, ripped away his helmet, broke his neck and damaged his right frontal lobe.

“What I’m learning, basically, God shut me off,” he says.

His unit, he says, saved him by responding quickly to his injuries. Grigsby said his colleague, Ronnie, wouldn’t let him die.

“He was very determined to save his little brother,” Grigsby said.

He remembers arriving at one hospital and being paralyzed on the left side, and doctors told him he would be in a wheelchair for nine months.

Grigsby had one question: “What do I have to do to get out of here?”

“They told me, ‘You’re going to have to walk.’ I walked out the door two months, 10 days after the day I was hit in Iraq. May 31 I walked out, with a cane.”

He credits family, friends and doctors for bringing him back from the brink.

“Being very driven has helped me get back,” he says. “I’m kind of a maniac.”

Recovering

What he still knows — from before his injury to today — is to keep pushing, keep moving, keep your head up. So he does what doctors tell him to do, and then does more.

“I never do anything at 100 percent,” he says. “I always go at 110.”

Grigsby, husband to Lori and father of three sons, works out on the cardio equipment at the gym and lifts weights.

“It’s good for endorphins in the brain,” he says.

His long-term memory is pretty good, he explains; short term, not so good.

“Frontal lobe affects short-term memory,” he says.

So he takes medications and supplements like fish oil. He works with a speech pathologist and sees a psychologist once a week.

“The only way to get better is to tell the truth,” he says. “Say what you’re feeling. It all comes down to being honest.”

His injuries were extensive.

The broken neck left him with permanent nerve damage to his arms and legs. He can’t taste, can’t smell. Sometimes he suffers double vision so he has special glasses, and he wears a hearing aid, too.

“I have days I feel 110 percent, and I have days that I crash,” he says. “I’m learning to read my body better.”

His trust in God helps, too.

“My faith is strong. I pray to God every day, ask for the strength of one angel if anything should ever happen,” he says.

One thing he has noticed about himself these days: He laughs and smiles more often. It took a long time to get to where he could laugh again, about anything.

“I joke around now,” he says. “My sense of humor is coming back.”

Back to work

Today, Grigsby works for Xe services, a private security contractor formerly known as Blackwater, but with new leadership. From his office at McEuen Terrace, his job is be an advocate, a mentor, for returning vets with brain injuries or stress disorders. He is also an educator, letting the public know of the challenges these men and women face.

He feels blessed just to do what he does.

“I’m just fortunate to have a company that stands behind me 110 percent. In this world, nobody would touch me, with a broken neck and a brain injury.”

It’s a lot of traveling, calling, checking in. Like most high-energy people, he can’t sit still. His Blackberry never leaves his side.

“That’s my lifeline,” he says.

Still, blessed or not, there are days of regret, of wonder, of questions.

“Am I the same man that deployed to Iraq that is here now? No. I’m done for doing the kind of work I like doing. Law enforcement, security work.”

He pauses for a moment, looks around the room, then continues. Brain injuries are the worst. The absolutely worst, he says.

“Not a day goes by I wish I was shot that day and not took a blow to the head,” he says.

But he has moved on now, with a goal to “educate society on the effects of TBI and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.”

War terms like battle fatigue and shell shock are referring to the same thing: brain injury, he says. He’s seen Vietnam vets suffering PTSD and other disorders. They’re not getting the help they need, he says.

“I call it fading away,” Grigsby says.

Traumatic brain injuries are tough on the victim and their families. He cites statistics that say 80 and 90 percent of those who suffer brain injuries in war end up in divorce, depression, family troubles and suicide.

He says many veterans try to avoid letting people know of their injuries for fear of being stereotyped. They fear then that others will avoid them, won’t hire them, won’t know what to say to them.

Ron Grigsby isn’t about to let that happen.

He is, he says with a laugh, still the Bulldog.

“It is my mission now to turn it around,” he says.

Brain injury support group forms

• The North Idaho Brain Injury Foundation is a new support group being led by Ron Grigsby of Hayden.

“Join a great group as we gather together to share about life with a traumatic brain injury,” said a flier. “No two brain injuries are alike and will discuss resources, education and advocacy. We will support each other in our journey as a brain injury survivor.”

The group will meet the third Saturday of each month from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Kootenai Medical Center.

Grisby is also working with the Spokane chapter of the Brain Injury Foundation, and is on the board with the state of Pennsylvania to assist injured veterans.

He is also working with Eric Murray, vice president of student services at North Idaho College, to develop a plan to help survivors of traumatic brain injury and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, with their education.

Information: Grisbsy, 765-8062, rgrigsby@thebackup.com and www.tbiwa.org

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