Clarence: An Inspirational Story on Overcoming Traumatic Brain Injury


Meet Clarence.

Clarence is the young veteran working at the mill machine in the photo you see above. He has been out of the military for 3 years now, having served in combat right out of high school.

Clarence is currently finishing out the Advanced Inclusive Manufacturing (AIM) program at the Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL) at the University of Pittsburgh. This program is one that teaches veterans like Clarence the basics of machinery, which will give them a leg up in a high-demand field.

Clarence suffered a major traumatic brain injury (TBI) during a deployment. Now he has a form of visual agnosia, in which he lacks the ability to visually recall images in his mind. He told us during our visit to the HERL lab that remembering how an object should look when he is working on a project is a challenge because his lack of visual recall.

The good news is that Clarence was hardly feeling defeated by this drawback. Actually, he was very upbeat when telling us about it. Though he can’t picture in his mind how to do something, he instead draws a map for himself as he goes that allows him to complete the task.

Clarence completed his military service at age 22. The native Texan spent time at his home in Austin, focusing on his medical treatment. He told us that while he was readjusting, he was feeling somewhat demoralized.

He said he had several friends his age who had also finished their military service, and, as he described, “did nothing but sit around and play video games, and sometimes get mixed up in drugs.”

“My options were limited in Texas,” Clarence said. “I saw so many of my friends fall into the same trap of drugs and laziness. I knew I needed to do something better than that. I was working on getting better, but never lost ambition.”

And Clarence could have fallen into that trap. He was an intelligence analyst in the military and he had a top-secret security clearance. His goal after his service ended was to enter a similar civilian post as an analyst. Unfortunately, he lost his clearance as a direct result of his brain injury. Once that happened, he wasn’t really sure what to do.

As fate would have it, the VA hospital where Clarence was getting his treatment became less accessible due to the sheer number of veterans in need of treatment. Clarence took a trip to the Pittsburgh VA for a while so he could get the specialized treatment he needed. It was there that he met Dr. Cooper.

Clarence was used to working with his hands. He told us that he grew up hunting and fishing and loved every second of it. He decided to enter the Experiential Learning for Veterans in Assistive Technology Engineering (ELeVATE) program, where he would learn the basics of machinery, and would later move on to the AIM program.

Clarence had a new outlook on things. He was capable of working machinery, and had plans of his own. Given his love of bow hunting and archery, he wanted to do something that would allow others with disabilities to enjoy that same rush that he got with a bow in his hand. He told us that his goal is to take his training from HERL and manufacture adaptive archery equipment.


This is just one example of the tremendous work that Dr. Rory Cooper and his team at HERL are doing for veterans with disabilities. Not only are they training veterans in a high-demand field, but they are also teaching them coping mechanisms to overcome their own disabilities, while encouraging these veterans to take what they learn and work for the benefit of others with challenges.

DVNF has partnered with HERL to purchase a new lathe. A lathe is a basic piece of machinery that is one of the keystones of basic engineering. Many devices are made from a lathe, so it only makes sense that their lab would teach these veterans how to use a lathe.

The problem is that their lathe is a piece of World War II surplus equipment! Unlike most of the devices in their lab, this machine is anything but modern, and they told us that it is hard to teach veterans how to use it.

So, we are going to help Dr. Rory Cooper and his team to buy a new lathe. We will give them the $50,000 necessary to purchase it, so that veterans can learn this valuable skill, and take their training on into the real world and help other veterans in need.