Local veteran battles hardships and inspires others to never stop trying
If you met Andrew Bell on the street, you’d never guess that just five years ago he was unable to string a coherent sentence together or even feed himself.
Today, there are few visible signs that Andrew lives with the challenges of a traumatic brain injury, but those who know him best understand what he’s been through and recognize how far he’s come.
Andrew and Katie Bell were married in 2009, but have known each other since they were kids. They currently live in Santaquin and have three boys in their blended family: Rylan, Michael, and Daniel.
Just a few months after Andrew and Katie got married, Andrew went into the army (in February 2010). He went through basic training as well as Advanced Individual Training and became a medic. Andrew and Katie went to Fort Carson in Colorado, where they were assigned to one of the oldest battalions in the army (166). But it was only about a month before Andrew was deployed to Afghanistan.
While Andrew was deployed, Katie went back to Texas to work at a Marriot spa. She was an award-winning massage therapist who was frequently called in whenever the Marriot had a VIP client. She tried to stay busy to keep her mind preoccupied while Andrew was away.
While in Afghanistan, Andrew experienced some very challenging and dangerous conditions. He was unable to shower for the first six months of his deployment, and he was only allowed one five-minute phone call per week.
In addition to these personal challenges, Andrew’s unit experienced heavy losses. They lost such a high percentage of people from 2011-2012 that they were told an early replacement unit might need to be brought in.
In response to such a devastating situation, Andrew’s unit stepped up to the challenge. He recalls, “we just doubled down. We did a whole lot of offensive patrols. We pretty much tripled the number of patrols we did per day. And by the time summer came around, which is when things usually really heat up, nothing was happening.” He explained that they went from having nearly two attacks per day to having a total of five attacks in the final months of his deployment.
After Afghanistan, Andrew was deployed to Kuwait. He was there as part of a quick reaction force that could be deployed rapidly when needed. It was more like a hot and boring vacation than deployment, and stood in stark contrast to the dangers he faced in Afghanistan.
After Kuwait, Andrew decided to go into counterintelligence. Andrew explained that when you’re in counterintelligence, you find out where you’re going to be sent before you even finish training.
Katie reassured him that she would be by his side wherever he was sent … as long as it wasn’t cold. So you can imagine Andrew’s disappointment when his first sergeant told him his orders came in for Alaska.
He was so nervous to tell Katie that he didn’t say a word about it for two months. Finally, his platoon sergeant admitted his bluff and told Andrew his real orders were to go to Italy. He told Katie right away.
In December of 2014, Andrew and Katie packed up their lives and moved to Italy. They lived there for over a year. During that time, Andrew was putting his packet together to become a warrant officer for counterintelligence.
There were multiple reasons for his decision to change careers. First, warrant officers get to control their schedules (for the most part). Second, his dad was a warrant officer for counterintelligence in the military. Third (and most importantly), Andrew and his family wanted him to do something that was safer than being a combat medic.
But Andrew and Katie had no way of knowing what lay in store for them. On Feb. 2, 2016, the doorbell rang. Katie was upset as she got out of bed, thinking that Andrew had forgotten his key again.
But instead of Andrew standing there, it was one of his counterintelligence friends. He somberly explained that Andrew had been on a run and had been hit in the crosswalk by a car going twice the posted speed limit. Katie was devastated and had no idea what to expect.
Andrew was seriously injured and was sent to an Italian hospital where he underwent plastic surgery to repair damage from the debris lodged in his head. After the surgery, the doctors said he was fine and sent him home.
But it soon became apparent that something was very wrong. Andrew suffered from a traumatic brain injury, as well as injuries to his neck, back, and nerves.
Katie recalls, “He seemed kind of okay that first night … but then, he wouldn’t wake up.” He also began having seizures and was unable to speak or walk. He was flown to a hospital in Germany, where he spent about two weeks in the ICU before he was sent to a regular unit.
“In the beginning, it was hard for me to speak clearly and fluidly. But I learned that if I sang, I sounded like the old me.”~Andrew Bell
After that, Andrew was sent to Walter Reed in Maryland. He spent 18 months there, going through intense rehabilitation and re-learning everything from scratch (including how to speak and walk). As part of his treatment, Andrew went through music therapy. It helped to reroute pathways in his damaged speech center and was very effective at helping him find his voice again.
Katie explains that even when Andrew was still unable to walk or put a sentence together, he was able to sing beautifully. To Andrew, singing was more than therapy. It was a piece of his old self that he hadn’t lost.
He explained, “In the beginning, it was hard for me to speak clearly and fluidly. But I learned that if I sang, I sounded like the old me. That was like my respite from all the rest of my therapy. All my other therapies were to try to get me back to a normal area or as close to a new normal as they could. But with music therapy, it was more just me being able to revert back to my old self that I didn’t have anymore.”
For three months during his treatment, Andrew and his family stayed at the Fisher House, which is a nonprofit organization that helps military families stay together during medical crises.
Since his accident, Andrew has fought tirelessly to find himself again. He decided to compete at the 2017 Warrior Games in Chicago. He competed in archery, swimming, discus, shot put, and also did volleyball training. He loved every minute of it.
The Warrior Games celebrate the emotional, mental, and physical recovery and resilience of wounded soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and special forces operators. During the 2017 Warrior Games, more than 200 service members from the U.S. military (all branches), as well as service members from the UK and Australia competed in a variety of sports. The stated goal of the competition is to “inspire recovery, support rehabilitation, and generate a wider understanding and respect of those who serve their country.”
Thanks to his participation in the 2017 Warrior Games, Andrew made friends all over the world. He remains in contact with them today. After the games, Andrew was medically retired from the military. He and Katie moved to Tucson, opened an award-winning spa, then sold it and moved to Utah.
Just five years after his devastating accident, Andrew is now attending online school so he can become an author of science fiction/fantasy novels. He and Katie also paint rocks and hide them throughout their community for others to find. So far, they have painted over 350 rocks in total. Some have inspiring messages that bring hope to those who are struggling.
For the families of wounded warriors, Katie has this message: “It’s okay to mourn somebody who’s still here. With [Andrew’s] traumatic brain injury, his personality changed a lot. A lot of things changed … There’s not a grave to go to, but I still get to miss that person who he was and still love the new person that he is continuing to become.”
Andrew encourages any other veterans reading his story to reach out to him on Facebook. He’d love to get together with other local veterans to go hiking, do archery, or just talk. He wants all veterans who are wounded in any way to know, “You might be changed. You’re not broken. You might be different now, but you can still make a difference. There’s a part of your story that needs to be told.” (Peterson is a Serv Daily contributor.)