This story was told to CreakyJoints by Kristal Kent, a 45-year-old army veteran who lives just outside of Cleveland, Ohio. While in the army, she sustained a knee injury that required surgery — and was then in a military vehicle crash that caused more problems. Her resulting conditions and chronic pain still affect her life today. Here’s Kristal’s story — and what she wishes others knew about veterans living with chronic pain.
Joining the military is something I wanted to do since I was 14 years old. I felt like it was a way to give back to my country, while gaining skills and experiences I wouldn’t get with everyday life. I come from a military family, so several of my relatives have served as well.
I enlisted in November 1999 and served with the 256th Combat Support Hospital (CSH), called Bravo Company. (If you remember the show M*A*S*H, my unit was a MASH, but they later changed the name to Combat Support Hospitals.)
I went into the army after graduating from college, where I had worked in the social services field assisting people with intellectual developmental disabilities.
At first I was a dietitian in the army.
The Military Injuries That Started It All
One day when I was on active duty in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, I injured my knee doing basic field training exercises. I just stepped the wrong way and felt my knee go in another direction, almost the way a sprained ankle feels.
But a few weeks later, my leg was so swollen that they had to cut my pants off when I went to the army hospital emergency room. There were tears in the meniscus, tendon, and cartilage behind my kneecap and hairline fractures in my patella.
Because of that injury, I needed surgery on my knee. Then, about two months later on August 18, 2000 — while I was still recovering from that surgery — I was a passenger in the flatbed of a two-and-a-half-ton military truck (often called a cattle car or deuce). The driver was goofing around and jerking the steering wheel to be funny, and lost control of the vehicle. It ended up going off the road and crashing into a ditch.
I was thrown around like a ball in a pinball machine. The force propelled me back and forth, smashing my legs, hips, back, and neck.
That incident caused me to sustain several injuries, contributing to the onset of arthritis in my knees, hips, and back, plus eventually degenerative disc disease in my back and spinal cord damage.
How Chronic Pain Affected My Role in the Army
I couldn’t be on my feet all day, and I couldn’t lift anything more than 10 pounds. I had various pains in my neck, back, and shoulders, and I was also experiencing headaches and migraine.
When I would see the doctor, they told me that these pains were common when you have an accident: “Your muscles freeze up and get really tight.” My knees locked up completely a few times, and there were nights when the pain was so intense in my neck and lower back that I couldn’t sleep.
In the military, they tend to treat your symptoms rather than looking at the underlying cause. They prescribed me 800 mg of ibuprofen, which we call “ranger pills” in the military. It didn’t really help and it upset my stomach, so I didn’t continue to take it.
I was given what’s called a medical profile, which orders that your job duties be tailored for your medical condition. However, that doesn’t mean that others in the army uphold that order fully.
Sometimes superiors put you into positions that really aren’t good for chronic pain conditions or injuries. I learned that I had to advocate in a way with my team in command so they wouldn’t interpret it as me being obstinate or questioning their authority. It’s a very diplomatic fine line, and it’s often very difficult. There are some egos, and a lack of knowledge and training as far as invisible conditions and chronic pain conditions go in the military.
There’s something called the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), which outlines military law. I had to make sure that when I was advocating for myself, I had my medical profile and knew UCMJ codes. That way, if I got pushback, I knew the parts of the UCMJ that protected me and my medical health care rights — and guarded me from potential retribution.
In my experience, it’s also more difficult to advocate for yourself as a female versus a male. I noticed quite a few instances in which our superiors were more receptive to my male counterparts who had medical profiles and issues.
At one point, one of those male soldiers came in with me to talk with the first sergeant of our unit. “You made these accommodations for me,” he said. “Her injuries are worse, her profile has more restrictions, and this is not equal.” It took a male soldier in a similar situation to help me get the accommodations that I needed.
How I Finally Changed Roles
Because certain tasks that superiors were putting me through caused me to stand for too long and were exacerbating my injuries and chronic pain, I was eventually switched over to do what they call a charge of quarters duty, which includes administrative tasks like answering phones.
But sitting too long would also aggravate my lower back. I had to come up with my own way of accommodating it, like getting up every 30 to 45 minutes to move around and take the pressure off my lower back.
In 2001, I was going through the process of getting an honorable medical discharge since I was injured in the line of duty and considered not deployable. Then September 11th happened — and as a result, everyone got held over and they put my unit into the tactical operations center. I was working there until I was honorably discharged for my medical injuries in February 2002.
After that, I stayed on with my unit as a volunteer and ran their family readiness group for two years. As a whole, I was with my unit for almost five years.
The Path to Getting Properly Diagnosed
The arthritis in my knees was diagnosed relatively quickly, while I was still in the army. The arthritis in my hips, though, took until 2007 to get diagnosed through Veterans Affairs. It was a long fight, but eventually they determined both of my arthritic hips were injured in the line of duty.
It wasn’t until nearly 2014 when doctors realized that my back and neck issues were progressive and I was developing arthritis there too. The specialists were able to create a timeline and trace those issues back to what happened to me in the vehicle crash.
A chiropractor identified that I had sustained whiplash in my neck that went untreated and unnoticed. It had progressed and my discs started shifting, bulging, and breaking down. That was when I started having degenerative disease of my discs and arthritis in my neck and lower back.
The unfortunate thing with the military and being a veteran is that it sometimes takes a long time to get the right diagnosis and then the appropriate care. It takes a lot of advocating, and it takes determination not to give up. For my right hip alone, I knew I needed surgery, but I went through nine medical providers at Veterans Affairs and was misdiagnosed by all of them.
I was finally able to ask to be outsourced for a second opinion, so they sent me to a sports medicine orthopedic surgeon. After he looked at the images done by Veterans Affairs, he told me, “How could they not see all of these things? You need hip reconstruction surgery.”
I got the hip reconstruction surgery on March 23, 2017, and it was pretty intense. I’ve had seven surgeries, but that hip surgery was way rougher than any of them. They had to dislocate my leg just to do the surgery. I had to wear a weird half-body brace, and I went to physical therapy afterward for five months straight.
What My Life Looks Like Now
Today, I am considered disabled and I am on Social Security Disability Insurance. Some of my injuries, especially the back and neck injuries, didn’t just induce arthritis, degenerative disease, and chronic pain problems. The pressure on my back also caused spinal cord damage.
These injuries triggered fibromyalgia. As well, my migraine attacks over the years worsened. By 2014, it was becoming more and more difficult for me to work, even part-time. My doctors determined that I was disabled, and one specialist told me that if I kept going like I was, I would end up in a wheelchair — so I had to stop working.
Between all of my surgeries, and on days when I feel well enough, I advocate and promote awareness for different chronic pain conditions, fibromyalgia, veteran needs, and health care needs. There are a lot of systemic issues at Veterans Affairs, and not enough medical doctors or specialists.
I have to get back surgery, but I don’t know when because of the COVID-19 pandemic. My back surgery will probably be really intense and I might have to go to a rehab facility for a couple weeks. I’m hoping after that surgery, I’ll be a little more functional where I can at least do some work part-time.
Advocating for Others
Between all of my surgeries, and on days when I feel well enough, I advocate and promote awareness for different chronic pain conditions, fibromyalgia, veteran needs, and health care needs.
For instance, I do individual advocacy for veterans, helping them apply and strengthen their claims for Veterans Affairs Benefits. I also assist veterans with filing formal patient rights violation complaints and engage in legislative advocacy, promoting and advocating laws and legislative bills to be enacted to protect Veterans’ Healthcare Rights.
In recent months, I’ve been advocating on a legislative level to protect female veterans from sexual assault and harassment at Veterans Affairs. A study found one out of four females who go to the Veterans Affairs have experienced some form of harassment or assault. Recently, the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) drafted a legislative bill addressing this issue. To support this bill to protect female veterans, I reached out to my state’s congressional leaders (Ohio) to push this bill through to the House of Representatives.
How I Cope with Chronic Pain
For treatment, I do physical therapy and chronic pain management with injections from a pain management specialist. I’m also prescribed intravenous infusion therapy treatment by my pain specialist to address all of the chronic pain conditions, injuries, and fibromyalgia. A combination of different pain medications, such infusions are typically prescribed for people who have very treatment-resistant chronic pain conditions or severe treatment-resistant fibromyalgia, and I’m diagnosed with both.
You have to have a lot of tools in your coping arsenal belt to be able to manage the pain physically and emotionally. I meditate, practice low-impact yoga, and follow an anti-inflammatory diet as much as possible.
It doesn’t mean I don’t have flare-up days or that I feel well, because I don’t feel well on any particular day. It’s just some days are better than others. I also check in with a pain psychologist, a therapist who specializes in working with people suffering from chronic pain, to keep my frame of thinking positive and realistic.
But just because I choose to advocate on behalf of the chronic pain community, chronic pain conditions, and military veterans — and just because I have a positive outlook — doesn’t mean I’m not suffering. It doesn’t mean that when you see a photo of me that looks good, that’s how I am every single day. The pretty photos are usually the exception.
What I Want Other People to Know
It’s okay not to understand everything about someone living with chronic pain or an invisible medical condition. But believe that their experience with chronic pain and chronic illness is very real. It can be debilitating to the point where we have to balance our entire lives around it.
People with chronic pain do a lot of different things to manage it — from treatments to coping mechanisms and positive frame of thinking affirmations — just to show up. You don’t see the preparation it takes for us to do the simplest of tasks some days.
We do a lot of behind-the-scenes work just so we can put our best foot forward for our family, friends, and community.
Want to Get More Involved with Patient Advocacy?
The 50-State Network is the grassroots advocacy arm of CreakyJoints and the Global Healthy Living Foundation, comprised of patients with chronic illness who are trained as health care activists to proactively connect with local, state, and federal health policy stakeholders to share their perspective and influence change. If you want to effect change and make health care more affordable and accessible to patients with chronic illness, learn more here.