When Marla Brundies, '98, MSW '01, left the Quad Cities in 2003, her friends and family knew she was on her way to great things.
After all, she had survived the challenges of single parenthood as both a full-time employee and part-time college student. She had lived through two motorcycle accidents, one that had severed her left leg and another that had cost her an eye. She'd earned her master's degree in social work at St. Ambrose. And she had discovered her passion: helping homeless veterans-who make up 30 percent of the country's homeless population-regain their footing in life.
But before she could set about her life's work, she hit another bump in the road. Almost literally.
Brundies had just moved to Los Angeles to begin a job with the Veterans Administration there when she was hit by a drunk driver, landing her back in the hospital.
"I broke my good leg and I got a concussion," Brundies says. "I was back up in a few days and able to take my kids on a whale-watching cruise. I remember pushing my walker up to the ticket counter and telling the clerk about the accident, and how it had interrupted other plans. He sympathized and told me to have a good time on the cruise."
Still, full recovery was a long way away. "I cried for three months following that accident," she says frankly. "I was experiencing anxiety about everything and had a constant knot in my stomach. I finally asked my supervisor about it, and she said I probably had post-traumatic stress disorder," or PTSD.
Ironically, Brundies had hoped the job in L.A. would teach her more about the disorder that so many of her veteran clients struggled with. She just hadn't expected to learn quite this way. "Many vets experience PTSD, and I can say I understand the feeling now," she says.
Indeed, the drunk driver who plowed into Brundies turned out to be a vet who might well have been self-medicating for PTSD with alcohol.
"The police arrested him and I had to go to court to say how I wanted him to be treated," she remembers. "I thought, if the guy is remorseful and in treatment, I'll accept community service and successful completion of a substance abuse program. When he walked in, I recognized him."
He was the man taking tickets for the whale-watching cruise.
"He said he recognized me when I came to buy tickets a week after the accident," Brundies says.
"He said he couldn't believe how I smiled while I talked to him, even though I needed a walker to get around. It moved him to get into treatment. He successfully completed the program and eventually began helping others in treatment programs. And he paid all my hospital and legal bills."
After three years in L.A., Brundies decided it was time to learn something new, and she took a job with the VA in Washington, DC. As the coordinator of healthcare for homeless veterans, she supervises a staff of six as they strive to get homeless vets into the services they need.
"I absolutely love what I do," she says. "I love being a social worker. I love working with vets. Their camaraderie is amazing. You walk down the hall and hear them calling out to each other ‘hey, Brother!' Everybody is ‘Brother.' And they mean it. I guess that's why I feel so strongly about helping them. They put everything on the line for the rest of us. They didn't just talk about love of country like the rest of us. They proved it. We owe them everything, and I'm going to do everything I can for them."