Health & Medicine

What happens when two soldiers fall in love while one faces a traumatic injury?

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Courtesy of Kayla Williams and Brian McGough

Kayla Williams and Brian McGough

People find love in strange places — even war zones.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

Kayla Williams met Brian McGough in Iraq in 2003.

They were both Army sergeants, deployed to a rugged Iraqi mountainside. And there, a spark of love was struck.

What neither of them could foresee was that McGough would suffer a traumatic brain injury and PTSD that would severely test their relationship before it even fully blossomed.

In her new book, "Plenty of Time When We Get Home," Williams describes how she felt when they first met.

"He was smart, and funny, sarcastic, witty, handsome, charismatic, but I knew that it was not the place for us to begin any kind of relationship," Williams says. "I did confess to him one night that I wanted to get to know him better, and he said, 'Oh, there's plenty of time for that when we get home.' And a few months later he was very seriously wounded by an Improvised Explosive Device or IED and it looked for quite a while as if I might never get that chance." 

It was five months after that mountainside meeting when a bus McGrough was riding in hit an IED. The soldier received a traumatic brain injury. A piece of shrapnel entered his head, and went from the back of his skull into his brain. 

When McGough returned home to the US, he spent a few months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He was released without rehabilitation or a plan for follow-up. Compounding his problems were symptoms he didn't understand and limited resources to treat his severe post-traumatic stress disorder.  

"Everything that happens to me is amplified. So if someone cuts me off in traffic, it's not just that they cut me off in traffic, it's akin to kind of running me off the road into a ditch. That's how my brain functions," McGough says. 

The couple married, but struggled. Williams says they reached "rock bottom" one evening when McGough became violent.

Williams locked herself in a room, but became desperate herself. She emerged and asked McGough to take her life with a gun. Fortunately, the weapon wasn't loaded.  

After that incident, Williams fled. But she reunited with McGough the next day, after she broke her ankle while rock climbing. McGough suddenly became her caretaker and the couple restarted their relationship on a new footing.  

Ten years after McGough's injury, the couple are together and raising two children. Although McGough has made significant strides, it's been an uphill struggle. Williams notes that, nationwide, five years after sustaining a traumatic brain injury, only 20 percent of patients are still married. 

"Eighty percent of the marriages of TBI [traumatic brain injury] patients fail," Williams says. "It was hard, it really was hard."

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