A Navy SEAL's last act of service: A search for the truth about brain disease and the military
By Corinne Reilly
Special to The Virginian-Pilot
May 28, 2016
On the afternoon of March 12, 2014, Jennifer Collins checked her phone and found a message from her husband, Dave Collins, a retired Navy SEAL. He’d texted to say that she should pick up their son from kindergarten, and then this: “So sorry baby. I love you all.”
Hours later, two police officers showed up at their house in Virginia Beach with news that Dave, 45, had shot himself in his truck a few miles away. Although Jennifer had held out hope for any other explanation, she also knew the moment she read it what the text meant. For months, she’d watched Dave disintegrate into a man she hardly knew. She’d tried everything, but nothing had alleviated his severe insomnia, intense anxiety and worsening cognitive problems.
“I was so frustrated that I couldn’t find the answers he needed,” she remembers.
It was out of that frustration, she says, that the idea came to donate his brain to research. She was still answering a detective’s questions in her living room that night when she blurted it out: Tell the medical examiner to do whatever is needed to preserve Dave’s brain. She hoped the decision might help others struggling with what everyone believed explained Dave’s afflictions – traumatic brain injury and PTSD, the most common wounds of the post-9/11 wars.
“That’s what he’d been diagnosed with,” Jennifer says. “I had no reason to think there was anything else to find.”
In June, three months after Dave died, a letter came from the doctor who examined his brain. It left Jennifer stunned.
What had caused Dave’s unraveling was chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease best known for affecting former professional football players. Associated with repeated head trauma, CTE causes neurological decay, has no known treatment and can be diagnosed only at autopsy. It is linked to memory loss, personality changes, depression, impulsivity, dementia and suicide.
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