Antoinette Toscano on taking the struggles of military veterans seriously – Loveland Reporter-Herald

Growing up in Queens, N.Y., self-described “hillbilly” Antoinette Toscano eschewed the ways of her “cosmopolitan” family in favor of pastimes like hunting, fishing and gardening.

But one family tradition that she embraced was service in the military. At the age of 17, Toscano got permission from her parents to enlist in the U.S. Army reserves.

After graduating from college, she enlisted full-time, embarking on what would be an 11-year career. Along the way, she served in a number of roles, from field-qualified medic, to database administrator, to recruiter, to dental hygienist.

Near the end of her career, Toscano suffered a traumatic brain injury and spinal cord damage in a rappelling accident, leaving her with chronic health and pain issues. It also left her with mental health challenges, including anxiety, depression and agoraphobia.

As part of her recovery process, Toscano took up adventure sports, such as kayaking, rafting and hiking, in a call back to her “outdoorsy” childhood. That eventually led her to Colorado, where she fell in love with the people and mountains, prompting a permanent relocation to Loveland.

Though her recovery is still ongoing more than 20 years later, Toscano is successfully managing most of her symptoms. Now she hopes to use her experience to bring attention to the mental illness in the veteran community.

1. How were you injured? 

My foot slipped and I crashed into the mountain twice, butt first and then head first. Of course, I was wearing a Kevlar helmet, which probably saved my life. But I have lifelong traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injury.

2. How have those injuries impacted your life? 

Things that shouldn’t have affected me until my 60s, 70s and 80s happened in my 30s. I developed arthritis, cognitive problems, I had to relearn various things. And so as you age, your brain ages at a faster rate than people who have not had a brain injury. Sometimes I will wake up in the morning, and I don’t remember how to start my car. I will want to open a can of tuna fish, and I don’t have the words to ask ‘how do I open this can’ because I can’t tell you that I have a can. So I process information a lot slower.

A lot of veterans have very odd health challenges. Because you have the initial injury or illness, then you have the treatment. In my case, a lot of the medications created near-kidney failure. So the process is really not a one and done. You don’t just recover, and then you’re great, and you go on with your life. We have rebounds. As active as I am now, I still have to manage my health care on a daily basis.

And so what people need to understand is that anyone who has a persistent or chronic health challenge, whether you’re a veteran or not, you’re never quite over it. So in addition to trying to reintegrate back into a society that doesn’t really welcome us and doesn’t really want us around, employers kind of don’t want to hire you because they know that you will probably miss a lot of work.

3. In your estimation, what are the most serious mental health challenges facing veterans and active members of the military? 

It’s a combination of things. First, human beings struggle to process trauma. Especially horrendous trauma, whether it happened to us being blown up, being shot, being injured, losing a limb, losing a friend or multiple friends, being far away from home.

What happens with trauma is, there are certain things that need to happen so that you can move and process through the trauma and be OK afterwards. And if you don’t do those things, then you get stuck in that traumatic moment, whether it was a war, or it was losing a parent to COVID. And so what is difficult for us warriors is that we are strong, resilient, mentally tough, physically tough, independent kind of people. We don’t need a lot of support. But now we suddenly do, because we’ve been through this thing or series of things.

One of the things that you need to be OK after trauma is you need to be able to process it right away. You can’t do that when the trauma doesn’t end. And so you don’t really get to stop and process until you leave the military. And then you have to start your life, when you hit the ground running, you have to go be a good civilian and get a job, move your family around and find your way when you get back to your community.

What is really hurtful to me as a veteran is all of the imagery that comes out of the entertainment industry, and even in the way that our politicians talk about veterans. They thank us for our service, out of one side of their faces and out of the other side of their face, they call us all the domestic terrorists.

We join the military, not because we are warlike people by nature. We join the military, because we feel that we have the mental and physical fortitude to protect other people. It’s really the people with a servant’s heart that join the military — we put ourselves in harm’s way so you don’t have to.

4. What changes would you like to see that would improve veteran lives following their service? 

I love this question, because I actually have thought a lot about this. I think when veterans come home, we should be treated like the greatest generation. That employers value us and want to hire us and are understanding that I may need a little more time off than other people to go to all the medical appointments.

So with a little more patience, and understanding and compassion, and then going beyond just saying thank you for your service, it actually needs to come with action. And that action can be in the form of advocating for better treatment for active duty military, and veterans advocating for changes to the way that the film industry portrays us.

And then the other thing is that people can do — and even family members don’t do a great job at this — when you hear a veteran’s story don’t judge. I’m not judging you for your bad life choices. I made what I thought was a good life choice to stand between danger and my fellow Americans. That was, I think, a good life choice. Now don’t judge me for that. Especially since you don’t know if you haven’t been there. You don’t know.

5. What brought you to Loveland? 

This is such a Colorado story. I came here for a whitewater kayaking trip with 15 veteran women all with brain injuries and spinal cord injuries. And we paddled the San Juan River, and I fell in love with the people of Colorado and the mountains, and just felt like this was my energetic home, like these people are my people.

A lot of us veterans need the outdoorsy lifestyle to heal, to be out in nature, to be with other like-minded folks who like to hunt and fish and camp and kayak and all of those things. Because nature is very healing, and it doesn’t judge you. It just supports you if you’re open to it in this very loving way.

And then the outdoor adventure sports community is so welcoming and supportive. I can make a post that I’m going to paddle someplace and then 30 people will show up, and we’re all doing the same thing. And no matter what your native languages, we all understand kayaks. The same language, and no matter what country you’re in. And so I want to help people recreate responsibly, because outdoor recreation is at the intersection of conservation and adventure. And when you begin an outdoor lifestyle, not only are you healing yourself, but you start healing the planet.

That’s why I wanted to be part of the Loveland’s Parks and Recreation advisory commission. This team has the most amazing, diverse set of skills, and we come from all age groups and walks of life and ethnicities and genders. We help maintain these beautiful parks and it’s so exciting what we’re doing in this community.