War Related Illness and Injury Study Center
Honor, Courage, and Commitment: A Veteran’s Story
The first things you notice about Lance Corporal (LCpl.) Nancy Schiliro are her beautiful eyes and the determination reflected in her bearing. She is a Marine, through and through, and always will be. She embodies the essence of this generation’s warrior spirit. Her story is inspirational. Her story is one of resiliency but it is hard and not always kind to those of us in the health care system. But her story holds important lessons for all of us whether you are a Veteran like Nancy or a health care provider. Ultimately it is about the importance of giving each Veteran the respect and care they deserve and about Veterans taking steps to get the help they need to live productive lives.
As a 21 year old New Yorker, Nancy witnessed firsthand the events of September 11, 2001. Because she felt she could be doing more with her life, when Nancy saw a Marine Corps recruiting poster, it motivated her to seek out the Marine Corps Reserves as an option. She enlisted in April 2003 and deployed to FOB Al Asad, Iraq as an embarkation specialist from May 2004 to March 2005. In November 2004, she participated in Operation Phantom Fury, the second Battle of Fallujah. LCpl. Schiliro was injured in a mortar attack on her base in February 2005 which caused the death of a civilian worker. Nancy lost consciousness and had multiple facial and right hand bruises and lacerations. She was taken to the medical facility on base, evaluated for a minor traumatic brain injury (TBI), treated and returned to duty. Nancy continued to have blurriness in her right eye even after she returned to duty and until her re-deployment in March.
When LCpl. Schiliro returned home, headaches and more problems with the right eye persisted. She went to a civilian medical facility and was diagnosed with “pink eye.” She entered the VA system when her “pink eye” did not resolve. The Bronx VA found that her retina was completely detached with the further complication of a spreading infection. Nancy had subsequent treatments at the Bronx VA, but due to infection, she fully lost the sight in her right in July. The Bronx VA then referred her to the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary where following four surgical attempts to save the eye; it was removed in November 2005.
While surgery solved the immediate medical concern, Nancy was faced with as hard if not a harder struggle post surgery causing her to go into isolation. “I stayed by myself. I didn’t want anyone to look at me. I wanted my eye back and I was mad at the world.” She turned to drugs (prescription meds) and alcohol, and launched into a deep depression for over two years. Because the VA did not have the resources at the time to construct an eye prosthetic, Nancy was referred to civilian plastic surgeons that specialized in eye prosthetics. It so closely resembles her left eye that one would have to know Nancy’s history to know that she has a prosthetic.
Nancy’s journey back to herself began in 2006 after coming to the White Plains VA Vets Center to explore information about TBI and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She credits a family member, a Marine helicopter pilot and highly decorated Vietnam Vet, with finding the VA resources for her. She first met with a Readjustment Counselor at the White Plains VA Vets Center, and subsequently met with the Psychologist, who “turned me around 180 degrees through pure persistence.” Nancy was not always compliant with appointments but “my counselor knew that I was using drugs and abusing alcohol and would not let me off the hook.” It was the Psychologist who facilitated Nancy’s connection to and eventual employment with the Wounded Warrior Project.
She is particularly proud of the fact that she was able to stop using all drugs and alcohol on her own and today maintains a healthy life style. Despite taking a turn for the better in her life and attitude, Nancy still had physical limitations due to her injuries. Balance issues, migraine headaches and phantom pain continued to plague her and impact her life on a daily basis as well as continuing questions about her possible TBI and PTSD.
In the course of learning her duties for the Wounded Warrior Project, Nancy took it upon herself to personally review the services offered by organizations to Veterans and it was there that she learned about the War Related Illness and Injury Study Center (WRIISC). Since she still had some unanswered questions about the management of her injuries, she requested a referral to the WRIISC for a comprehensive clinical evaluation. Nancy came to the WRIISC at the East Orange Campus of the VA New Jersey Health Care System in 2009.
Nancy describes her experience at the WRIISC as being the most positive clinical one she has had in the VA. Nancy says she came “seeking answers about her injuries (TBI) and PTSD, but left with ten times the information.” She enthusiastically speaks of the enormous attention to detail she received during the evaluation and the meticulous follow up. At the WRIISC, Nancy notes amazement at being seen by an entire clinical team in one place including a Nurse Practitioner, a Neuropsychologist, a Social Worker, an Occupational Medicine Physician and a Health Educator. After being home for over four years, she reflected that, “The WRIISC was the first VA program to test me for TBI and PTSD.”
Nancy was also impressed with the thoroughness of the recommendations or “roadmap” she received and the fact that at the end of her visit she got to meet with and hear from the entire clinical team. Her recommendations covered all of her concerns including her severe headaches (two to three times/week), pain, ringing in her ears, sleep difficulties, abdominal discomfort and exhaustion. She received referrals for speech therapy, neurology, and pain management for her migraines. She also had recommendations for follow up for her depression, stress reduction, exercise and relaxation techniques, sleep, management for irritable bowel syndrome, and provided with other resources to support her.
Nancy remains amazed by the ongoing and consistent follow up by the WRIISC, especially Social Worker Lisa Pickett, MSW who followed her for over a year and has nothing but praise for the entire team.
Nancy followed up with all of her appointments and treatment plan. Today she is working fulltime for the Wounded Warrior Project in Columbus, Ohio, and re-certified as an EMT at Westchester College before she left New York. Because of her sight and balance issues, she has a service dog named Shelby, a wonderful companion with a gentle disposition, who does not go unnoticed wherever they go. Shelby is a two year old spotted Great Dane!
LCpl. Nancy Schiliro was separated from the Marine Corps in 2006 with an honorable discharge. Nancy still believes the Marine Corps lived up to all of her expectations. She got support and enduring friendships. She received an education and traveled. She says she would never blame the Marine Corps for what happened to her. “I knew what I was signing up for. It was a time of war and I would do it all over again.”
In May 2011, Nancy realized a lifelong dream by climbing the entire summit, 19,400 feet, of Mount Kilimanjaro with two other wounded Veterans who are amputees. Dubbed “19K for the KIA” the climb was a fund raiser that took five days to ascend and two days to come down.
The irony of a “climb up” being harder, as is life, is not lost on Nancy. “I wasted three years in severe depression. If I can give Veterans out there any advice, I’d say get help as early as possible. And that includes the services of the WRIISC to get your answers and achieve a better quality of life. The WRIISC changed my outlook about the quality of clinical care a Vet can receive at the VA from a negative one to a positive one.” Nancy continues to be an inspiration to all who know her and she continues to serve through her work with Veterans.