Erik Castillo remembers every detail of the morning his life changed.
It was early on July 27, 2004 – less than two weeks after his 21st birthday – and already hot in Baghdad’s Green Zone. The 21-year-old Army specialist stood in a parking garage, preparing his Humvee for a mission.
“I was looking inside the vehicle through my driver’s door, checking the fuel,” he recalls. “That’s when I felt something hot pierce my skull.”
Castillo had been hit by shrapnel from a nearby explosion. One of the metal shards tore through his brain, shattering the right side of his skull and lodging in his frontal lobe. Doctors had to remove a half-fist-sized piece of it to save Castillo’s life.
Traumatic brain injuries have become the “signature wound” of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, says Dr. Michael Marks, former lead psychologist of the Southern Arizona VA and current director of the University of Arizona Supportive Education for Returning Veterans (SERV) program.
“It’s estimated that 10 to 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans have a traumatic brain injury of some sort,” he says, “and 33 percent of all wounded soldiers have a traumatic brain injury.”
Traumatic brain injuries can range from concussions to penetrating wounds, like Castillo’s.
Castillo’s injury was so severe that doctors told his family he would never walk or talk again. But he set out to prove them wrong—and surprised even himself with what he could achieve.