Robert Foley

Robert Foley has lived with chronic pain for over 40 years. He has diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), progressive vision loss and multi-system injury due to high voltage non-ionizing RF radiation exposure. He has a fractured spine, five herniated discs and arthritis in all his joints including his shoulders and neck, and has had reconstructive surgery to both knees and ankles. He lives with chronic pain throughout his entire body. Each of these ailments stems from his years as a Navy SEAL.

Robert joined the Navy in 1973. Like every SEAL, he underwent the grueling and intense SEAL and S.E.R.E. (survival, evasion, resistance, escape) training program. The drills included a level of traumatic exposures unlike any other, such as ocean drowning episodes, beatings and waterboarding along with other horrific, unmentionable scenes. He was tortured and put through many war simulations, all of which are no longer allowed in SEAL basic training.

Through the course of his military career, Robert was engaged in innumerable life-threatening situations. He was subjected to daily exposure to ultra-high voltage non-ionizing radiation from June 1974 to June 1975. His mission during that time was to maintain and secure a large cluster of high voltage RF transmission towers built over the Indian Ocean in part of Bahrain, a Middle Eastern territory. For 13 months, Robert and three other teammates  climbed free-hand with as much as 30 pounds of equipment strapped to their backs to sit perched atop towers 200 feet in the air while eight-inch, gas-filled coaxial cables under full power hung only inches away from them.

Robert encountered other dangerous situations in the form of underwater search-and-recovery missions and roadside attacks, one of which killed his roommate. He trained extensively for night diving missions. On these missions, the SEALs used early Vietnam-Emerson closed-circuit oxygen rebreathers with mixed gas diving rigs. Referred to as the “death rig,” even highly trained divers had to use extreme caution due to the temperament of the device. Every SEAL knew the dangers involved, and yet they each took that risk because it was part of being a SEAL: protecting our country.

On two separate occasions, Robert also faced the imminent threat of an attack on his primary base and a hostile takeover. Thankfully, this did not happen. In late June 1975, his orders were prepared to depart NCSO Bahrain Island immediately and return to the US. His commanding officer explained to him that if he did not act immediately he feared Robert could very well return stateside in a body bag.

Robert lost many SEAL teammates during his time of service. To this day, he remains closely connected to the Naval Special Warfare (NSW) community and his former teammates. Those who have served know that a civilian – while empathetic – can never fully understand the continued pain and agony that a fellow combat veteran endures. That is why Robert now focuses his energy on educating civilian doctors while also being a source of strength to his brothers and sisters suffering from the horrors of combat (such as PTSD, TBI and MST) and dealing with chronic pain.

Robert has been dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for over 20 years. PTSD is a type of anxiety disorder that occurs after extreme emotional trauma, usually involving the threat of injury or death. For many veterans, symptoms arise within a few months of a single deployment. Robert suffers from flashbacks, nightmares, emotional numbing and avoidance, rage, hypervigilance, sleep disruption, hopelessness, guilt and suicidal ideation. Forty years later, the traumatic events of his past continue to haunt him. This is to be expected though: he was under constant threat during his deployments.

In addition, the daily exposure to extraordinarily high non-ionizing radiation has impacted Robert’s entire body in ways that are beyond medicine’s current capacity to understand. Described by his superior as “a mixing bowl for human disaster,” two of the men who served with Robert during that time are presumed dead, and the other is dying a painful, horrific death. Just some of the biological, pathological and clinical manifestations of this form of radiation include cancer, traumatic brain injuries, tremors, retina separation, hyperparathyroidism, daily headaches, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, vestibular disruption, lung nodules, depression, joint deformities and liver problems.

What is most disturbing is discovering the US Navy has had knowledge of the serious danger of such close proximity to radio frequency radiation since 1971. Yet they did nothing to protect Robert or his team from the damaging and sometimes fatal effects of being exposed to those towers. None of them received special training, radiation detection monitors or were informed of the risks. They each put faith in their commanders to protect them to the best of their abilities; all four of them were let down and have had to pay with severe consequences.

Finding no relief in the typical protocols used to treat pain and injuries such as his (through medications), Robert slowly began to identify his own “wellness therapy” plan. After decades of endless suffering from a barrage of symptoms, he is now managing his pain through equine therapy, Native American spiritual practices, transcendental meditation, strength and core training, nutrition and rest. These techniques have brought him peace and restored his hope in mankind.

In particular, equine therapy has had a positive affect on Robert. Equine therapy promotes physical, occupational and emotional growth. Many veterans mirror the flight/fight mentality of the horse. They re-learn patience and trust, forming a powerful bond with their horse unlike anything else—similar to the bond created in communicating with fellow teammates.

When Robert was first introduced to horses through his local indigenous elders in Maine, he immediately felt calm and at ease in their environment, free of judgment and conflict. Soon he regained his identity; horses led him to trust again. When he is with his horses, the chaos of life quiets and he is once again allowed to “Live in the Now.”

Robert now dedicates his time and energy to helping other veterans. It is so important to him that his fellow wounded veterans find their own path back to wholeness. Many veterans return home with a fractured existence, a loss so deep and unimaginable words can’t describe. It is when a veteran finds his or her identity again that the true healing journey begins. For Robert, this happened through equine therapy. Because of this, it has become his mission to share with others how effective for veterans this form of treatment is.

Mustang Mentors for Veterans and is just one equine assisted therapy facility providing this type of therapeutic approach in the country. While the process of healing through horses is subtle, the results are profoundly powerful. Many veterans suffering from PTSD find the mentality and movements of a horse relaxing. They realize they have to be patient and learn to trust in order to form a bond with the horse, similar to communicating with humans. Robert is proud to support these organizations as well as work with them allowing veterans to find their purpose in life again.

Besides helping his fellow veterans, Robert gives his time to educating doctors entering the profession. His experience has been that many civilian doctors do not know how to communicate or connect with a combat veteran. There is a different protocol to follow to ensure a bond of trust is made. For veterans, entering a room to find an authority figure that seems less interested in listening and more concerned with asserting power is a threat. Veterans need to feel heard by an open and non-judgmental doctor. They need to understand that others aren’t pretending to understand what happened on the battlefield, but instead are invested in working together to find a better way to heal.

Robert’s journey with pain has made him face numerous obstacles. Currently one of the biggest challenges he faces is with the VA system. In the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) federal regulations, Title 38 Code has stipulations regarding dependency indemnity compensation (DIC) benefits for survivors of certain veterans rated totally disabled at time of death. The law states that a veteran must be 100 percent disabled for at least 10 years for a spouse or dependents to be entitled to benefits.

In Robert’s situation, he would need to live another six years to ensure his wife would be cared for after his death. It infuriates him to know that he has been fighting to receive a totally disabled rating for years. However, because the system is flawed, he faced fight after fight obtaining this status despite decades of being 100 percent disabled.

He is now making it part of his final duty to lobby for legislative changes to the VBA federal regulations. Title 38 impacts countless veterans and their families. These veterans have proudly served this country and deserve better. Their dependents deserve better, too. After all, it is the whole family that makes the ultimate sacrifice when a military person protects the United States. No wounded combat veteran should ever have to worry about his family’s finances and security if he or she sustains war injuries.

Robert’s continued passion and drive keep him moving forward. Robert’s continued passion and drive keep him moving forward. He says his connection to the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership has taught him to see view pain
as a way to serve others. While he lives with debilitating chronic pain, he refuses to live in a sympathetic state. Instead, he works to ensure all veterans receive the care and benefits they deserve.

While Robert may be suffering, he is not a sufferer. . He resists the stigmas associated with his multi-system injuries and being tied down mentally, physically and spiritually because of ailments. Robert has empowered himself to adapt both his brain and body beyond pain by choosing just the right combination of wellness therapies.

It is this synergistic combination of therapies that include equine therapy, transcendental meditation, strength training and Native American cultural practices that allows him to break through the wall of pain and reach a much higher level of emotional, physical and spiritual awareness. In fact, what empowers Robert is moving and staying focused on what still exists in his life, and making a point to “Live in the Now,” one day at a time.

Robert would tell you simply, “I am not a pain sufferer. I am a pain manager.”

A Different Journey – Full Circle:
Mustang Mentors for Veterans:
Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership –
UNE – Pain Education Collaborative:
All Glory Project: