Todd had always wanted to join the Army and be a soldier. Perhaps it was because his dad had been in the Army. At 17, while still in high school, he joined the National Guard. Two years later, when he went on active duty, he moved to his new station with the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas. The Army sent Todd for training in “missile school” at Red Stone Arsenal. It was there that he met a fellow trainee and soldier, Jessica. Missile school was not a particularly romantic place but Todd fell in love with Jessica there and they were married soon after.
In 2004, Todd was deployed to Iraq. He had numerous responsibilities, including serving as a perimeter guard and driver for the company commander. One day, he was part of a small convoy that was escorting incoming soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division to their new post. The soldiers were safely delivered and Todd’s detail was on their way back to their own post when they spotted a suspicious object partially buried in the road up ahead. The convoy came to a halt and the soldiers approached the object. They were sure it was an improvised explosive device so they radioed for the explosive ordnance disposal unit. Before the Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit could act, though, the insurgent hiding in the bushes at the side of the road detonated the device and began shooting.
Todd doesn’t remember much of what happened after that. His buddies tell him that he was the person standing closest to the IED when it went off. He didn’t appear to be injured but he looked dazed and confused, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he was standing in the middle of a gun battle while his buddies yelled at him to get back to his truck. He has some memory of getting in the truck and driving the commander back to the post, although he had a headache and was feeling very sleepy. The commander offered to drive but Todd said he was fine and drank another energy drink to stay awake. The convoy made it back to the post without further incident.
A few months later, Todd’s tour of duty ended and he was stateside again. He separated from the military, as planned, after a few more months. By then, Todd and Jessica were expecting their first baby. Jessica wanted to be near family so they moved to Sarasota to await the birth of their daughter. Todd got a job at a manufacturing facility. That’s when he noticed that the headaches he had been experiencing intermittently since the incident in Iraq were getting worse. Some days they were so bad he had to miss work. There were times when he felt anxious for no reason. He had never had any medical treatment following the IED explosion but he decided it was time to find out why his headaches were getting worse.
A visit to the Bay Pines VA Hospital confirmed what Todd had begun to suspect: he had sustained a serious closed head injury in the explosion. He also had a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The doctors worked with Todd to see what they could do about his recurring headaches, trying many different kinds of medicines, none of which seemed to be very effective. He missed a lot of work due to medical appointments and days when he just could not get out of bed. His general manager at the manufacturing plant met with him. He told Todd he was sorry but he needed to terminate Todd’s employment based on the company’s attendance policy.
He decided that while he was working with the VA to figure out which treatment might help he should go back to school. He used his GI Bill benefits and enrolled at the University of South Florida, while also working to help veterans who were also returning to school to complete paperwork in the admissions office.
His supervisor noticed that there were always many veterans hanging out in the office with Todd, who explained that these veterans felt comfortable with him. They tended to be older than the typical USF student and they were not yet entirely comfortable with civilian life, since most had recently completed their military service. They wanted to talk to other veterans who had some shared experiences—experiences that they sometimes had difficulty discussing for fear that civilians might not understand. In order to understand, “You had to be there.”
The other people hanging out in Todd’s office, including Todd, had “been there.” Todd suggested that, perhaps, USF would like to start a veterans’ program with a dedicated center. His boss said that if Todd could help find the funds for such a program, they would love to start one. So that’s exactly what Todd did: he found the money and became the first administrator of the Veterans Program at USF Sarasota-Manatee.
In Todd’s new role, he worked closely with the veterans in the Goodwill Manasota Veterans Services Program office. It didn’t take long for that team to invite Todd to join them. Todd wanted to make a difference for veterans and he thought he had done everything he needed to do at USF. He was ready for a new challenge.
These days, you can find Todd at the Goodwill Veterans Services Program office on Lockwood Ridge Road, just north of University Parkway, working as the program manager. He still has headaches but his new regimen—oxygen treatments, acupuncture and chiropractic care—make them more manageable. He brings his canine companion, Ghost, to work with him most days. Ghost is a timber wolf hybrid trained as a service animal that helps Todd in moments when he feels anxious. Ghost has a calming effect on anyone who meets him. Although Ghost has never served in the military, he nonetheless reports to work in uniform each day, ready to serve. Together, he and Todd – along with the rest of the veterans’ team – welcome each veteran who comes in and work to ensure they get the services they need.
Todd says he is thankful to Goodwill for giving him his dream job, for working around his headaches when they occur, and for giving him the opportunity to grow and to help other veterans. It’s what we do …