Kate Kemplin says her ex-husband, U.S. soldier Michael Froede, was funny, smart, and a father who loved his daughters. (Submitted by Kate Kemplin)
When U.S. President Donald Trump seemed to downplay traumatic brain injuries (TBI) sustained by American troops in an Iranian missile strike, University of Windsor assistant professor and former military spouse Kate Kemplin knew she needed to speak out.
Not only has the nursing professor and researcher dedicated years of her life to studying brain injuries sustained in combat and has worked for the U.S. army as a nurse specialist — she has witnessed the toll these injuries can take on a person first hand.
Her ex-husband, Sgt. 1st Class Michael Froede, an American soldier, sustained a TBI while serving in Iraq in 2007, which Kemplin says eventually led to his death by suicide in June of last year.
"His physical body came back from Iraq, but he didn't," she said.
Kemplin says she noticed changes in Froede when he returned from Iraq, after he sustained a traumatic brain injury. (Submitted by Kate Kemplin)
Personality changes, sleep disturbances, headaches, trouble sleeping, paranoia were all symptoms that followed, Kemplin said.
"When he got back, I could see that it was beyond re-adjustment, it was beyond normal re-integration issues that service members have when they get back. These were strong indicators that a traumatic brain injury had occurred," she said.
The couple had married in 2004 and had two daughters together. They divorced in 2013.
Kemplin, who is originally from Owen Sound, moved her family from the U.S. to Kingsville, Ont., last year, six weeks after Froede's death.
In January, headlines about U.S. soldiers injured in Iraq hit close to home for Kemplin.
A crater at Ain al-Asad airbase in Anbar, Iraq is shown in this Jan. 13, 2020 file photo. The base was struck by a barrage of Iranian missiles, in retaliation for the U.S. drone strike that killed top Iranian commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani. (Ali Abdul Hassan/The Associated Press)
Iran fired missiles at the Ain al-Asad base in Iraq on Jan. 8 in retaliation for the U.S. drone strike five days earlier that killed top Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
In the weeks that followed, more than 100 U.S. soldiers were diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries following the strike.
After the initial reports that some soldiers had been hurt, Trump referred to them as "headaches" and said the cases were not as serious as injuries involving the loss of limbs.
His comments prompted criticism from lawmakers and a U.S. veterans' group, and it struck a chord with Kemplin.
"Whenever you have someone, the head of the executive branch, the most powerful person in the world, denigrating a combat injury that has really serious implications, it sends a message to legislators who appropriate money for that. And treating traumatic brain injury, especially in the military, takes money. Researching it takes money," she said.
"If you have the head of the executive branch saying that they're just headaches, then I think ... it puts the funding in jeopardy."
And she stressed how painful Trump's comments must have been to the families of those whose loved ones were injured.
"You know, my children ... they heard that on the news," she said. "They knew that their dad had a TBI. They know it's not just headaches."
The U.S. Defence Secretary Mark Esper did defend Trump's response to that strike, saying that the president cares about the service members and is concerned about their health and welfare.
Since 2000, about 408,000 service members have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, according to Pentagon data.
"It's a worldwide military issue because explosions don't discriminate," Kemplin said.
"And you know, Canada has had service member suicide issues as well. And I think bringing attention to the American side of it brings attention to the Canadian side of it."
With all of this hitting so close to home, Kemplin says she feels compelled to speak out and is driven to continue her research on the subject.
"I think the reason I'm speaking up now is because this can't be an accident. It can't be a coincidence that I studied TBI in graduate school and then my husband had a blast-related TBI," she said.
Three weeks after publishing her initial findings on soldier suicide, Froede died by suicide.
"So like, how much does the universe have to tell me that this is important for me to actually speak up about it?"
She explained that traumatic brain injuries are still misunderstood and that the symptoms are often conflated with PTSD and other conditions like mood disorders, anxiety or depression. She said that while those conditions might be occurring, sometimes the root cause is missed.
That's why, she says, there needs to be a concerted effort to bring traumatic brain injury into the conversation and to push for research funding so that service members can get the treatment they require.
In an e-mailed statement, the Canadian Armed Forces wrote that it takes all necessary safety precautions, providing the necessary training and equipment to members to help reduce the risk of injuries, both physical and mental.
It added that its approach to mental health and wellness has evolved.
"In medical sciences, we are continuously researching important topics such as traumatic brain injuries to ensure we are on the cutting edge of evidence-based knowledge and treatment," the statement said.
Kemplin remembers her ex-husband as funny and smart, a father who loved his girls.
When he died in hospital, Kemplin was able to be by his side.
"I think it would be a very different experience if I had not been able to say goodbye to him. I'm a nurse, so I was able to shampoo his hair and get him ready to go."
Froede will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, near the U.S. capital, next month.
"I think he would have really enjoyed watching me push back on some of the political comments," Kemplin said.
"And you know, he liked fighters and he was a fighter. So, I think he would appreciate me stepping up."