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Shaw Alum Advocates for Injured Soldiers

Tara KnightNovember 14, 2012 – Tara Knight, a 1997 graduate who also earned a Master of Divinity degree from Shaw, saw her 11-year career as a chaplain in the U.S. Army end unexpectedly.

During a deployment to Afghanistan in 2008, the helicopter she was riding in was attacked while the pilot attempted to land. "We were told that the area was hot," she said. "We could hear the gunfire, and we were told to dismount quickly."

Knight, a Smithfield native and SSS graduate who now lives in Raleigh, tripped as she tried to get out and hit her head. She didn't know it at the time, but she had suffered a concussion. She began suffering splitting headaches, fainting spells and blackouts, but she stayed with the rest of the 16th Military Police Brigade for the remainder of her deployment. When she returned to the U.S., doctors told her she had suffered severe head trauma and diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder. She received a medical discharge in 2009.

"It was a very difficult condition for me because I didn't immediately get the help that I needed," she said.

That's why she has dedicated herself to helping other veterans – especially those who've suffered brain injuries – find treatment. These days, she works full-time as a volunteer at for the Disabled American Veterans chapter in Knightdale. Her official title is legislative chairman; she stays abreast of developments in the state legislature and Congress that could affect VA benefits and does a little bit of lobbying.

But the chapter commander, Marine Corps veteran Chris Bradford, said she also plays the role of counselor. She provides her services to everyone, but as one of the few women in the chapter, Bradford said, she's in the best position to counsel female veterans who have been sexually assaulted.

"She's used to sitting down with a person and making them feel comfortable enough to talk about what's wrong," Bradford said. "She's very effective at what she does. I don't know what we'd do without her."

Pathway to the military

Knight came from humble beginnings and stumbled into the military career she grew to love. She grew up poor in Smithfield, with a strict, religious family. Before joining, her only connection to the military was through male family members who had served in the Vietnam War, including an uncle who had been killed.

She longed to get out of Smithfield but had to work to support her mother after high school. After working at KFC for awhile, she enrolled in Shaw University. "The furthest I could go away for college was Raleigh," she said. That restlessness stayed with her after she graduated. "I wanted to get away from Johnston County because I knew what was waiting for me," she said.

She considered joining the Peace Corps but instead chose the Army because of the pay and benefits. The Army, she thought, would allow her to go out into the world while supporting her mother. She enlisted in 1998 and became a chaplain through a program known as Direct Commission. "Coming from a very religious or strict family, I felt that was the best option for me," she said.

In addition to holding Mass and performing religious ceremonies, Knight had the grim duty of "death notifications" – informing a soldier's next of kin that their loved one had died. Before telling the family, chaplains were briefed on the soldier's background and details. No matter how much research she did, Knight said, she couldn't get used to it.

"I've never had an experience where a mother did not ask me if their son or daughter died alone, and if we had all their body parts," she said. "It could be very difficult."

She did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, often going to remote bases to visit the soldiers she counseled. "I was where my soldiers were," she said. "I always had to be available mentally, which really wore me out."

Like many of her peers, Knight did not initially understand the extent of her injuries. The constant headaches and a few sleepwalking incidents prompted her to see a doctor, who determined she had suffered brain trauma. She is now on medication to keep her from fainting, and she expects to be on it for the rest of her life.

She said she hopes her experience helps more veterans with brain injuries open up.

"To look at me, you'd never know I had a disability," she said. "But I'm broken in a different way. That's why it's important to me to advocate for soldiers who are broken in a different way."   

This article is reprinted with permission from the Smithfield Herald. Photo courtesy of William Clayton II.