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By Cynthia Tintorri
December 09, 2008
Rob Kislow is a survivor. He has survived a risk-taking lifestyle, being shot five times in Afghanistan, traumatic brain injury, a suicide attempt, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
It was the PTSD that brought Kislow to Eileen Finelli's 8 a.m. Basic English class at Northampton Community College last week. Finelli's students had become interested in the disorder after a classmate wrote a paragraph about it, and class discussions revealed several personal connections to soldiers coming back from war with the problem.
Finelli knew Kislow because he had taken two of her English classes as part of his coursework in automotive technology at Northampton. She told her students, "I know someone who has post-traumatic stress disorder ... would you like to meet him?"
Kislow, 23, speaks whenever and wherever he's asked on behalf of wounded vets and amputees. He wants to educate and inform people about the needs of veterans, and to give hope to other vets.
When the towers fell on September 11, 2001, Kislow was a student at Northampton High School. He wanted to drop out and join the army right then, but his parents convinced him to finish school first. After graduation, Kislow joined the army, where he did stints in airborne school and sniper training, eventually ending up on a combat team with the 82nd Airborne Division. Kislow's unit provided security for villages that were helping the U.S. intelligence effort. "I helped open a school for boys there, and I'm proud of that. I did 50 missions in three months," Kislow told the class.
But on June 10, 2005, Kislow's life changed forever. He was in Afghanistan, in a region along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. "We had heard that Taliban forces were trying to come into Afghanistan through Pakistan on what we call 'duck and run' raids. They would come into town and raid every house, taking food, men and boys, and killing those who resisted."
A 10-hour firefight broke out, and Kislow was trying to protect a man he thought was a civilian. "It was a trap," he states matter-of-factly. "The guy's buddy rose up from the bushes and shot me five times." A hero-soldier through-and-through, Kislow is quick to add, "We took 63 prisoners that day, and captured the Taliban leader."
Kislow's wounds were severe. He was shot in the back of the head, through the Achilles tendon in his right ankle, in the elbow, back and side. The bullet in his head was removed, but caused traumatic brain injury. The bullet through his elbow was an armor-piercing round that took out the better part of his radius and ulna, which have since been replaced. His arm functions now, but causes him constant pain. The worst injury was his ankle, requiring 30 surgeries in an attempt to give Kislow a functioning leg.
"My dad, who has never asked anything of me, asked me to try and let them save my leg - that's why I went through 30 surgeries. My 31st surgery was an amputation," he smiles grimly, "because I saw amputees there at Walter Reed who were getting around so much better than me."
Even though Kislow's physical injuries were beginning to heal, he had yet to heal from the mental and emotional wounds he'd received. "I was angry. I pushed away my family, my fiancée who had stayed with me in the hospital day after day, my brothers, who wouldn't come near me because of my anger. I was like a junkyard dog.
"It wasn't getting hurt that made me angry - the hardest part was that I didn't get to finish what I started - I didn't get to finish my mission. I wanted a career in the military, to follow in my grandfather's and uncle's footsteps. Instead, I was in a VA hospital, just trying to get back to normal life."
Kislow's anger and pain turned to depression. Because of it, he says, "I couldn't get out of bed. I couldn't eat. I went from 210 pounds to 145. I started drinking and abusing my pain medication - anything to not be me anymore. I kept all this inside myself for a year."
In mid-2006, a desperate Kislow decided to end his physical and emotional pain permanently. The sharpshooter put a loaded pistol to his head, and pulled the trigger. "The bullet lodged in the gun," Kislow says, a little amazed even now. "The next morning, I woke up and was back to myself. That was my breaking point."
Kislow sought and received help from the Veterans Administration for his depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. He allowed the VA to use him as a guinea pig for PTSD, studying his brain waves and chemical profile during mood swings. Kislow has good things to say about the VA. "They're still learning, like everyone else," he says. "The only way they'll get on top of this problem is to keep doing research on guys like me."
"I won't say I don't still get depressed," Kislow says honestly, but he has found that the best exorcism for his demons is talking about his PTSD, and helping other veterans. "This is my best medication," he says, indicating the classroom full of rapt listeners with a sweep of his arm. He is a member of Wounded Warriors, a group dedicated to raising awareness and enlisting public support for severely injured service men and women, and helping them to help each other.
"I take other wounded vets, guys who are like I was, out hunting, fishing, playing paintball - anything to bring some life back into their eyes," Kislow says seriously.
Kislow's speaking engagements and work with other veterans have brought him some celebrity. This week, he and his family are taping an upcoming Dr. Phil show in California, and negotiations are underway for an appearance on Oprah. And on Wednesday, Dec. 10, a short documentary about Kislow will air on Spike TV between 9 p.m. and midnight, during the live UFC Fight for the Troops. The event will raise money for a treatment center serving soldiers with brain injuries.
As for his everyday life, Kislow has resumed the active lifestyle he enjoyed before losing his leg, often to the dismay of his prosthetician. "I do things now I didn't even do in high school!" Kislow says. Sky-diving, rock climbing, hunting, fishing, motocross, and riding a Harley he built himself (pictured left) are now the norm for Kislow, and they take a toll on his $15,000 prosthetic leg. "I hold the record at Walter Reed for breaking the most artificial legs," he laughs.
The PTSD is better, Kislow says. He only occasionally has bad dreams, but is still uncomfortable in crowds, constantly on guard for unseen attackers. And the skylight in his room has been boarded up, because it made him feel as if someone was coming to get him while he was sleeping.
Kislow also finds solace in his love of cars. When he's not working toward his automotive certification at NCC, he works as a mechanic in a garage in Catasaqua. He hopes to own his own high-performance garage in the near future, and is working with Finelli to write up a business plan.
Asked if his outlook on life has changed, Kislow says, "I pay attention to a lot of things I never did before. Today I stopped to look at the way the leaves swirl up in the wind. I value the small things in life more than I used to."