A Warrior's Journey
Tim Low, a former Army Combat Medic, was devastatingly wounded by a suicide bomber while on patrol in Afghanistan in 2010. The attack was filmed by Army Chaplain Justin Roberts and featured in the film "No Greater Love." Tim suffered severe and permanent traumatic brain injury (TBI) and other lingering wounds. Like many other wounded Americans, the battle did not end when he returned home. This is his story.
Tim, by all accounts, was an average child, born and raised in middle America. Tim has warrior blood in his veins, descending from a family of patriots. Seven of the last nine generations of his family have served their country in the U.S. Military. Tim's father, Mike, is a Vietnam veteran and his brother, Daniel, is also a wounded warrior, with health problems related to exposure to "burn pits" in Iraq. It seemed natural for Tim to want to serve his country.
Tim was a bright student, but like many his age, not living up to his academic potential. He was athletic and enjoyed sports, playing high school football and water polo. He graduated in 2007 from Park Hill High School in Kansas City, Missouri. He is spiritual and has a strong Christian foundation. He scored well enough on the SATs to earn a scholarship to Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA. However, despite his Christian faith and upbringing, he found the transition from public high school to private college difficult. After one semester at Liberty, Tim decided he was not ready for college. Instead, he looked for something familiar, something that would provide him with future options.
He found his way to an Army Recruiting Station in Kansas City where the recruiter was impressed enough with Tim's scores on the military entrance exam that he enlisted him as a combat medic. Within weeks Tim was on his way to boot camp at Ft. Banning, GA, and then on to combat medic training in San Antonio, Texas.
Tim did exceedingly well in training and graduated with the Army Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) 68 Bravo, Combat Medic. He was assigned to a battalion nicknamed "No Slack", the 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, of the 101st Airborne, based at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. "No Slack" has a storied history dating back to World War I. Tim made the adjustment to his new surroundings and got along well with his fellow soldiers. He felt confident in his training and knew that he was going to be a good medic. In fact he looked forward to it. While Tim's unit conducted pre-deployment training at Ft. Polk, Louisiana, Tim was able to prove his worth by saving the life a fellow soldier who had succumbed to heat exhaustion and was unresponsive. Following this experience, Tim felt more confident that ever in his training and knew that he was ready to deploy.
However, it was also at this point that Tim began to have misgivings about how things were going with the overall deployment. His unit was ordered to deploy approximately two weeks before Tim returned from advanced combat medical training. By the time Tim finished his advanced training, the rest of his unit was already on their way to Afghanistan. One of the issues that concerned Tim was the fact that at the time "No Slack" deployed, the medical platoon only had a complement of 18 troops assigned. Fully staffed the platoon would have had between 30 and 50 troops; they were seriously lacking manpower.
As Tim was preparing to deploy and join his unit in Afghanistan he was not provided with the required equipment, including magazines for his M-4 rifle and a 9mm hand gun, authorized for medics so they can defend themselves when treating the wounded and unable to wield a rifle. Tim was also not provided armor plates for his vest and other uniform items which his parents were compelled to purchase for him. Tim was never told whether there was additional equipment waiting for him with his platoon, or if they just did not have enough equipment for even the reduced assigned number of soldiers in the battalion.
Tim finally deployed in early May 2010. In Afghanistan "No Slack" battalion manned "Combat Outpost (COP) Monty" in Kunar Province. Their mission was to control a road over the Kunar River and the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. At "COP Monty," Tim was embedded with a platoon of the
Battalion's Delta Company, although as one of only a few medics at the COP, he often accompanied other platoons on patrols.
At "COP Monty" there were other issues of concern, including the fact that the COP suffered from severe sanitation problems, which is not unusual in remote field situations. As a medic Tim was involved in assisting with sanitation remediation. Equipment problems were ongoing and communications with home were severely limited. Tim and his fellow soldiers only had about five minutes on a good week to speak to family.
The men of "COP Monty" conducted patrols of road and a Kunar River bridge crossing over the Afghan- Pakistan border at Lar Sholtan. Patrols generally consisted of six men from a mix of platoons. They were also training the Afghan National Police (ANP) at the border crossing how to conduct biometric collection and analysis, the measurement and analysis of people's physical and behavioral characteristics. Patrols moved along a road with only one way out and one way in. It was ideal territory for an ambush.
The Battalion Chaplain, Justin Roberts, made it his personal mission to document the human side of the battalion's deployment to Afghanistan, along with his spiritual duties to the men. As a religious man he did not carry a weapon. Instead he carried a camera and a "Go-Pro." Chaplain Roberts accompanied as many patrols as he was physically able. He documented his time with the "No Slack" Battalion in Afghanistan and after their return home at Ft. Campbell. He produced a documentary based on his experiences called "No Greater Love" (details at https://nogreaterlovemovie.com/). The film has been widely shown and has received numerous awards at film festivals since 2016. Chaplain Roberts was on patrol the day Tim Low was wounded and recorded the incident.
Tim was on patrol with a platoon on the 21st of June 2010. The patrol spotted a woman crossing the bridge from Pakistan into Afghanistan, alone and wearing a bright colored burkha. This was sufficiently alerting that the patrol called in to their headquarters to request permission to take out the threat. The cause for their concern was the fact that the women, who appeared young, was alone. Women do not travel unaccompanied in this tribal area. In addition, she was dressed in colorful clothing, more suited for a wedding, or other celebration, not the typical dark hijab. Headquarters denied their request because of the absence of an observable weapon and the lack of positive identification, as required by the "Rules of Engagement" being observed at that time.
Without permission to fire, the men on patrol could only stand by as the woman approached their position. When the woman was between 8 and 10 meters away from the patrol, she detonated an explosive device that was concealed under her clothing. Two of the men on patrol, Specialists David Miller and Andrew Looney, a Team Leader, were killed instantly. Sergeant Derek Ashman was badly burned by the blast and Tim was hit by shrapnel in his head and right side. At first Tim didn't think he was wounded and tried instinctively to get up to aid the wounded Sergeant. He put his hand up to his head and felt blood gushing from a gaping hole. Shrapnel entering Tim's head had been slowed, thanks to a pair of expensive sun glasses that his mother had given him, causing an injury that might otherwise have been fatal. In the film "No Greater Love," the incident is captured live on film and shows Chaplain Roberts praying over the wounded Low.
Tim's injuries were grave and at first his prognosis was grim. He was initially evacuated to Jalabad, then Kandahar, and then to Landstuhl Army Hospital near Rammstein, Germany, for continued treatment. Tim's family was notified from Kandahar and told to prepare to go to Landstuhl, possibly to say goodbye to Tim. In addition to his serious head injury he had over 600 pieces of shrapnel embedded in his right side, mostly in his lower extremities, including twenty-nine breaks in his right foot. Doctors at Lanstuhl were able to save his right leg, remove much of the shrapnel and stabilize him. Tim's prognosis improved and he was flown to Bethesda Naval Medical Center near Washington, DC, for more surgery, and where his parents were finally reunited with him. By mid-July Tim was released from Bethesda and transferred to the James A. Haley Veteran's Administration Hospital's nascent Polytrauma Center in Tampas, FL, where he remained until the end of August, with a short trip to travel back to Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) in Washington in early August, to attend the funerals of Miller and Looney, who had been killed on his patrol. Tim and Sergeant Ashman, who was wounded along with Low, were together at the two funerals at Arlington National Cemetery.
After the funerals Tim traveled back to Tampa where he continued to receive polytrauma care at the VA Hospital. The Tampa Polytrauma Center had been set up to provide care to wounded service men and women returning from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many patients were returning with multiple serious injuries that required concurrent treatment, as in Tim's case. His injuries included blast burns and trauma, shrapnel wounds, orthopedic injuries, traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Like many others, his recovery was emotionally difficult because he felt guilty for surviving, and guilty for thinking he was in better condition than many other patients. He was the only patient receiving care for TBI at that time who could even speak coherently. He was also concerned about certain aspects of his care as he observed that many patients were getting methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) at the facility. Tim requested to be allowed to dress many of his own wounds, and because he was a medic he was allowed to do so. He did not get MRSA.
Tim's journey through the VA bureaucracy continued to become more complicated even as he was still receiving in-patient hospital care. While still a patient at the VA Hospital, he was administratively assigned to a Warrior Transition Unit (WTU) at Ft. Stewart, GA, because he was still on active duty. The WTU was set up as a place to assign wounded active duty soldiers who were receiving medical care and were not fit for full duty. The unit was intended to help soldiers manage medical appointments, provide counseling and evaluation, and assist with future planning. If soldiers recovered well enough, they were returned to duty; other's were medically discharged.
Tim wanted to be able to return to his unit and his enlistment wasn't up until 2012. Unfortunately for Tim and many others, the WTU was not adequately staffed. There were 900 soldiers assigned to the WTU at one point and not nearly enough administrative and medical personnel to manage a unit that size. In Mid-August 2010 Tim was discharged from Tampa VA Hospital and returned to Ft. Campbell, still assigned to the WTU.
Because of the poor support provided by the WTU the men from the rear detachment of the "No Slack" rescued Tim and had him reassigned back to the battalion. From the rear detachment Tim was able to handle limited clinical duty, although because of his TBI it was difficult. Tim continued to suffer from sleeping and other problems; including short term memory loss and severe migraines, which interfered with his ability to work.
In addition, Tim still has pieces of shrapnel embedded in the frontal lobe of his brain that are too risky to remove. He also has unprepared fractures in his right foot and much of his upper leg muscle is missing, causing him to be in constant pain.
Because of the limitations imposed on his work performance by these physical impairments, he was subjected to non-judicial punishment and recommended for reduction in rank. Fortunately for Tim, his family was again able to step in and offer assistance in the form of a private attorney who able settle the punishment issue and obtain better treatment for him.
Tim, like others, found that after returning permanently disabled from war he is faced with yet another fight, the battle to receive the veterans' benefits he has earned. He spent upwards of 2 years fighting for 100% disability from the Army after initially being deemed only 30% disabled. In 2012 he had to extend his enlistment in order to continue to appeal for a higher percentage of disability. Tim was finally medically retired from the Army in November of 2012, still without 100% disability.
Due to a mix up in receiving his retired and VA retirement pay, Tim was told to pay money back to the government in the fall of 2013. He had to hire an attorney to appeal this hardship, which was granted, allowing Tim to keep his pay. Several resources have been helpful in his fight for benefits; the Wounded Warrior Ombudsman, which is only available to Army personnel, and the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA). Both organizations have assisted Tim in trying to resolve his pension payments retroactive to his retirement date, and in acquiring Social Security benefits. It is now eight years since Tim was injured in Afghanistan and he is still fighting a war at home to receive the benefits and compensation he earned.
Tim's father Mike continues to be an active advocate for him engaging in a continuous bureaucratic battle requiring considerable amounts of time. MIke was not able to obtain Tim's medical records going back to his time at the Polytrauma Center in Tampa until 2016. After receiving Tim's records it was discovered that the initial diagnosis of "mild TBI" and PTSD was incorrect, and that years of follow up treatment was also incorrect. This incorrect diagnosis exacerbated the problems of resolving his entitlement to 100% disability until early 2017. It was not until he received a correct diagnosis of "severe TBI" that he began receiving proper treatment.
Tim clearly met the four requirements for severe TBI: penetrating brain injury, craniotomy, lobectomy and the presence of scar tissue and shrapnel. There is currently no protocol available to treat Tim and he struggles daily with pain and lack of short term memory.
Tim's future remains in question. While deployed Tim had submitted an application for the United States Military Academy at West Point and received the required recommendations. While he was recovering in hospitals in the U.S. he was contacted by West Point about his application. However, because of the severity of his injuries his hopes for attending West Point and a future as an Army officer were gone. Tim's long term hope had been to eventually attend medical school, now an impossibility.
As in many polytrauma cases, pain management is a huge issue. To control pain during his recovery at the various military hospitals and the VA, Tim was given opioids which resulted in his addiction to the pain killers. Subsequently, Tim has turned himself in twice for abuse of prescription medications. He is still dealing with constant pain from his injuries, including four fractures in his right foot that have not healed. His only relief comes through the use of THC or marijuana which is illegal in his home state of Missouri.
Another big issue for veterans with TBI is that they can exhibit signs of dementia and mental illness and are sometimes mentally unstable. VA hospitals have no available means to hospitalize and care for veterans suffering from these conditions, and they are often "referred out," ending up on the street.
Today, Tim spends twenty-five to thirty hours of each week at the Kansas City Veterans Affairs Regional Medical Center receiving various treatments and therapies. He has done a twenty-one day rehab for marijuana use. One of the problems which continually comes up for veterans receiving care at VA hospitals, and was also an issue for Tim, is the lack of continuity in their of care. Tim would be shuffled from one doctor to another and they would go over the same background questions on his case as if he had never been there before. Not only is this redundant and time consuming, it is also stressful and a trigger for PTSD. He still can't work, but is contemplating trying to go back to college part-time. He has difficulty in relationships and experiences bouts resembling dementia, which is a side effect of severe TBI.
Tim was 20 years old when he was injured. He is now 28 and recently bought his first house. He has a full-time care giver, another former 101st Airborne Division medic.
Tim's father Mike remains an active advocate for Tim and other veterans suffering from TBI. There are currently 35,000 cases of severe TBI within the military community. Mike sold his business in 2012 in order to have more time to dedicate to this cause. He was involved in traveling with Chaplain Roberts to film festivals around the country to show "No Greater Love", which has received numerous awards and is now available on DVD. Mike still travels frequently and recently returned from a trip to Washington where he was able to meet with the Vice President in the White House, to advocate for veteran's service organizations. He also works continuously with Paralyzed Veteran's of America (PVA) and AMVETS and contributes to a national discussion on veteran's health, specifically Traumatic Brain Injury.
Contributed by Lora Griffith, former CIA Senior Operations Officer via several interviews with Mike Low, father of Tim Low conducted between 2016 and 2018.