Bank of America supports veteran's road back
June 30, 2014, Staff report, NASCAR.com
Jason Braase was told he might lose his leg. Years later, he ended up standing tall atop the flagstand at Charlotte Motor Speedway, waving the green to start last season's Bank of America 500.
"I've had some amazing moments in my life," said the former Army National Guardsman. "I've freed kidnapped children, I've walked up a 'call for prayer' tower that supposedly Jesus himself walked up, I've been shot at. I've been awake for like six days straight before. But let me tell you, waving that green flag was something that probably trumps all those moments. It was an incredibly intense experience standing above the track as the cars come by."
"I think one thing Wounded Warrior Project is doing with the help of Bank of America is, we're able to replace some of those bad days with good days."
That's saying something, given what Braase has been through. The 31-year-old from Idaho Falls, Idaho, joined the Army National Guard straight out of high school on Sept. 7, 2001, and days later became swept up in events that would alter not just his life, but the world. His enlistment orders are dated Sept. 11, 2001 -- a clear symbol to Braase that his presence in the military was meant to be. Soon enough, he would be serving in Iraq.
"It was a pretty clear sign to me that I was needed, that I was going to war," he said. "That this was the path that was laid out in front of me. Even if it wasn't what I wanted out of life, this is the direction life wanted to send me. So I ran with it."
That path took him to Kirkuk, a city in northern Iraq, where Braase served as an armored crewman on a 70-ton tank. Since the tank often proved cumbersome in the humanitarian aspect of his unit's mission, Braase and his comrades often had to leave the mechanized machinery behind as they ventured into the city to help restore electricity and clean water, or escort doctors to hospitals. They heard explosions all the time -- it was part of the job.
But one of those explosions proved fateful. In June of 2005, Braase was escorting an ordinance disposal unit when an improvised explosive device detonated in front of his Humvee. Shrapnel blew through his right leg just below the knee. "Damn near took my leg off," he said. The last thing he remembers from Iraq is his bloody uniform being cut away from his body.
It was the return home, though, where the trials truly began. Braase would need 13 surgeries and years of rehabilitation on his right leg, which had to be pieced back together. Arteries were replaced, his tibia was put back into the knee joint, and plastic surgeons used half of his calf muscle to cover the wound. All the while, there was the constant concern that he might lose the leg entirely. For someone who grew up hiking, bicycling and snowboarding through the high country south of Yellowstone National Park, the possibility wasn't even something he would consider.
"It's tough to even put into words, honestly," he said. "... For me, I just couldn't see my life continuing forward or having the same amount of satisfaction out of my life with a missing limb. For me, it was all or nothing. If I was going to lose my leg, I was going to commit suicide. It would destroy the person that I was. ... I just couldn't see a life without my leg."
Eventually, the external wounds healed. The internal ones took longer.
"During that time I was lost and alone and broken," Braase said. "Nobody could understand what I was going though. I didn't understand what I was still suffering with. For years, I walked around in a civilian environment as still a soldier, still reacting all the time like I was in a wartime environment. Little things would set me off, especially bangs and whatnot. Instinctively, I'd reach for my gun, but there never would be one. No one around me had my back. It was just a horrible, dark time."
The road back began with a backpack. Braase had been shipped back stateside without so much as a wallet or a toothbrush, and during the initial stages of his recovery, the backpack -- supplied by Wounded Warrior Project, then a small support outfit out of Jacksonville, Florida -- became his security blanket. He wore out the socks, T-shirts, toiletries and comfort items contained inside. He slung the backpack over the back of his wheelchair and took it everywhere. It meant so much to him that later in his recovery, as he headed for yet another surgery, his wife managed to get him another one.
"It made a massive impact on my life," Braase said. "It was the only thing I had that I had that I could call my own for a long time."
The backpack helped Braase's wife get his name into the Wounded Warrior Project system, and eventually he was on his way to San Diego for a summit of former service members in a similar situation. It was there, during late-night talks with others who could finally relate to what he was going through, that he made friends and found mentors. He learned to deal with road rage, a leftover effect of driving an armored vehicle roughshod through a combat zone before transitioning back to civilian life. Things began to make sense again.
"One on one, these issues that we face are so daunting," Braase said. "So impossible to overcome, so hard to grasp the understanding of it. But together we can get through it. It's not one person's issue."
Mental and physical recovery went hand-in-hand. Through Wounded Warrior Project's Project Odyssey, Braase learned how to snowboard again -- even though his right leg is now missing two major ligaments, and he initially harbored real fears of being hurt again.
"I went six or seven years without being an active person," he said. "Even though I had my leg, it took Project Odyssey to get me back snowboarding. That fear of reinjuring, that fear of being put back in pain, was just so high that I wasn't able to do anything. Then I found myself in Project Odyssey with others who had a traumatic brain injury, who had a missing arm or leg. And all of them were going snowboarding, and none of them had a fear of reinjury. It was really a magical moment being with them. ... Since then, I've been more active than ever."
These days, Braase lives in New York City with his wife and dog, and has a quality of life that's "quite fantastic," he said. He works as an ambassador and spokesperson for the Wounded Warrior Project, trying to raise awareness for the program that helped pull him out of the darkness. He arrived at Charlotte Motor Speedway for the Bank of America 500 last October for what he thought was just a speaking engagement -- and quickly became something else, when he was asked to wave the green flag to start the event.
For a car lover with fond memories of his father tinkering underneath a Cutlass Supreme, it was an overwhelming experience. Seeing so many active-duty service members from Fort Bragg, brought to the event through NASCAR's Troops to the Track program, made it even more special. It all made Braase hopeful not just for his own future, but for others making the same, trying journey that he has.
"You have a lot of really crappy days -- tough mentally, tough physically," Braase said. "I think one thing Wounded Warrior Project is doing with the help of Bank of America is, we're able to replace some of those bad days with good days. If we can give them more good days to override all those bad days they've had, I have a good feeling they're going to recover and continue to thrive."
For more than 90 years, Bank of America has worked to help provide support to service members like Braase through partnering with such organizations as Wounded Warrior Project.
To learn more about the bank's commitment to help returning veterans make the transition to life at home, visit www.bankofamerica.com/militarysupport and see how the company connects with customers, clients and communities on the Bank of America Facebook page and on Twitter at @BofA_Community.