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Sonya Brekke

Finding a New Normal: A Wounded Warrior's Journey to Recovery

After serving her country on a deployment to Iraq in 2011, Sonya returned home to Iowa and began to experience dizzy spells, daily headaches, forgetfulness and was unable to multitask. As an officer in the military, those things were frustrating and out of character for her. 


"I'm a strong, confident female leader. I led a team of hundreds of soldiers into battle, but I couldn't remember where I left my car keys," said Sonya. "I felt like I was losing control." 


Despite her best attempts, she couldn't overcome her challenges and was discharged later in 2011 from the military with a Purple Heart and Bronze Star. Although Sonya shows no physical signs of injury, she is a wounded warrior, diagnosed initially with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder before later being correctly diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury (TBI).


"I was devastated to leave the military - it was my whole world," said Sonya, who joined the military at the age of 17 and served for 23 years, including deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. "I left with no job, no benefits - I almost lost everything I had." 


She slowly began putting her life back together, one piece at a time. She began receiving services through On With Life's Supported Community Living program, where she has explored activities to help her manage her balance and vestibular difficulties, learned coping skills for her brain injury and added strategies to stay focused on her goals. Her goals are created with her - riding her bike in preparation of a return to RAGBRAI, attending CrossFit classes and running a successful clothing boutique - and they're all crafted to help return her to the life she wants to live. 


"I'm finding that this new life looks a little different than I imagined. I've grown a lot over the past few years and realized that I can still have an impact and I can still be a leader in a new way," said Sonya. "My life now is just as full and fulfilling as it was prior to my brain injury."


Another major step in finding her new normalcy was returning to work, something Sonya found immense pride and purpose in prior to her brain injury. She now works at On With Life as a transporter, making sure persons served get to the right place for their therapy sessions at the right time. She's taken the position to a new level, taking extra time to visit with the persons served and families in their rooms, stopping to talk to individuals in the hallway and engaging in conversation as she walks down the hallway with them. Her experiences as a brain injury survivor enhances her role at On With Life and her ability to interact with the persons served in a new way. She also serves as an inspiration for persons served and their families, as she encourages them to find their new normal, just like she has. 


"On With Life has helped me become a valuable member of my community again, and now, I'm able to give back to others," she said. "I'm able to take my experiences as a brain injury survivor and as a wounded warrior and advocate for them to get the services and treatment they deserve."


One way she's giving back is by volunteering in the Wounded Warrior program. Sonya found solace and help in the Wounded Warrior program and has now made it her mission to ensure other soldiers with traumatic brain injuries get the help and access to resources that she did. 


"After my TBI and discharge from the military, I was lost for a while. But now, I have found my new normal. I find new things I want to do all the time. I'm rock climbing, paddle boarding and volunteering," said Sonya. "This is a different life than I envisioned, but it's meaningful and fulfilling, and that's what's most important to me." 


For more information on our Supported Community Living program, visit our website: onwithlife.org/SCL.