Carlo Aragoncillo, serves as Veteran Relations Director of the MossRehab Institute for Brain Health (MRIBH), which treats veterans and first responders with traumatic brain injuries. He is responsible for spreading the word about the program and building relationships with veteran supporting organizations.
What is your background?
I went to Farleigh Dickinson University in North Jersey for my Bachelor of Arts in Forensic Psychology and earned my Master's Degree in Criminal Justice from Rutgers University in Camden, NJ. After 9/11, I wanted to do something for our country. I applied to different agencies including the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation because I thought I was best suited for intelligence work. It didn't pan out because they wanted me to have leadership experience, which I didn't have a lot of at the time. After assessing where I could get that, I initially enlisted in the Army Reserve and later commissioned through Officers Candidate School (OCS).
What positions did you hold in the US Army?
I served as company commander, responsible for over 130 personnel and $20 million of equipment. Simultaneously, I worked as the IT director of the Civil Affairs Brigade, ensuring secure telecommunications, which is vitally important in remote locations such as Iraq.
What is your work history before joining MossRehab?
I served as the Philadelphia Director of Veterans Affairs after my deployment to Iraq, while continuing to serve in the Army Reserve. In this position, I helped rebuild the program that connected veterans with benefits and resources. I also established working relationships with the 110 city agencies supporting the Mayor's Office in the City of Philadelphia. Each one had different priorities so I built a network to connect the dots among the departments. I worked there for three and a half years before joining Jefferson Health as the program director for Veterans Brain Health. The program was eventually replaced with the MossRehab Institute for Brain Health (MRIBH) and restructured with traumatic brain injury experts. I worked under Jefferson for two years before moving under MossRehab. (MossRehab is now part of Jefferson Health.)
What is the MRIBH?
The MRIBH connects veterans and first responders with traumatic brain injury (TBI) clinicians to provide a continuum of care on an individualized basis. People who experienced a traumatic brain injury are dealing with cognitive issues such as headaches, dizziness and vision problems that affect their daily life. In addition to dealing with TBI challenges, some veterans cope with the transition back to civilian life as well as post dramatic stress disorder (PTSD). The MRIBH creates a community, supporting the culture of the military, veterans and first responders. We provide the tools and skill sets to put individuals on a path to a better life. It's the first program of its kind in Pennsylvania.
What are the goals of the MRIBH?
The MRIBH has three overarching goals. One - we connect veterans, the military and first responders with TBI experts to address their challenges regardless of where they live, their rank, gender or race. Two - we work with their healthcare providers - be it with a private provider or the Veterans Administration (VA) - to integrate our services and share findings to improve the level of care and their life. Three - we support patients with mild-to-moderate TBIs in their journey to recovery.
What regions does the MRIBH serve?
Because we are a national program, we reach everywhere and have been contacted as far as California and the Pacific Northwest. Our main areas of coverage include Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey, New York and New England.
What is your role as Veterans Relations Director of the MRIBH?
Relationship building is key. I leverage my Army and city work experience to find potential donors, sponsors, and patients for the program. In addition to our grant, we raise funds. I reach out to organizations and corporations supportive of the military/veteran community. At the same time, we support different events with guest speakers and help with fundraising events. I also engage with veterans to let them know about this free traumatic brain injury (TBI) treatment program that covers transportation, lodging, meals, and treatment. Military/veteran communities taught me to give back and provide resources. In turn, I'm finding that people connect me with other resources.
I'm also targeting organizations that work with individuals having cognitive, mental and behavioral health issues in establishing a referral system and generating more awareness. For example, I'm in touch with the Veteran Multi-Service Center (VMC) in Philadelphia. I've known the CEO for years and talked about how we might support vets who have cognitive health issues. Understanding that VMC already has a healthcare model integrated into its organization, we might support it by providing TBI education and free screenings to outreach personnel. Participants receive educational material about the services of the MRIBH to take the next steps in their treatment.
Down the line, I hope to build a network of ambassadors who are subject matter experts in the different branches of the military and first responder professions. A staff member with a naval background could leverage their experience and knowledge in developing relationships and awareness in this area. With my background working with the City of Philadelphia, I've developed working relationships with the PA Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and serve as an advocate by contributing to the conversation of shaping the future of veteran health care. Moving forward, we could develop relationships with the Military and Veterans Affairs of different states and other municipalities such as New York City, which has about 210,000 Veterans compared to Philadelphia, which has about 60,000.
What services does the MRIBH provide?
The program has two phases. The first phase includes a three-day evaluation that gets a snapshot of someone's health based on previous traumas or injuries. Individuals get a report of the findings and recommendations for different services to address their issues. We provide answers, validate concerns and fill in the gaps. If services are outside our scope, we provide recommendations to providers or services within the veterans' or first responders' communities. We also engage family members, so they are included in the conversation and work together with their loved ones.
Those accepted into the program get an individualized plan of care. We have a team of clinicians including a neuropsychologist, a physiatrist, a speech pathologist, and physical, occupational and art therapists. It's a three-week intensive outpatient program where individuals work in both groups and one-to-one with clinicians.
What makes the MRIBH unique?
When an individual gets healthcare from the VA or private provider, they often need a referral to visit a specialist, which can sometimes take weeks or even months to get an appointment. The MRIBH expedites the process and provides coordinated care at one time under one roof. I spoke to a veteran who has appointments five to six months out and couldn't get them closer together. During our assessment, an individual is in a room with five or six clinicians who formulate answers together. Patients can bring that information to their provider or the VA, and we can use the findings in their treatment at our facility. Providers know MossRehab as a reputable source and we can converse with them about our findings. We help rebuild the relationship and confidence in the healthcare system with the veterans and the first responders who may no longer seek needed care.
Where are services provided by the MRIBH?
We are building a facility in Willow Grove, Pa., with three apartments adjacent to the clinic. Lodging, food and treatment are free for patients during their designated three-week stay. We're looking at late Spring 2023 to open and already have a number of people in the queue qualified to enter the program.
Who is your role model?
My wife, Shelley, has helped me through tough times on a multitude of things. She helped me pick up the pieces after returning from my deployment and transitioning into civilian life. When you come back home from the military, it's hard to shed your former identity and adapt to a new profession. Annie Duke, a professional poker player, said it best during a podcast when she talked about knowing when to quit. She said, "The hardest thing to quit is who you are, especially when your beliefs become a part of your identity. And when you're confronted with the world telling you to abandon the course, that means abandoning your identity." Shelley helped me in my transition and to move forward post-military career.
What is something that your co-workers might not know about you?
I enjoy DJing – not professionally, but it’s something I look forward to picking back up.
What are your interests outside of work?
I would say home repair, as I'm fixing my house. I also dedicate a lot of my time to my son. My parents found toys from my youth when cleaning out the attic, so I'm ireliving my childhood through him.
Where is your favorite vacation spot?
The most amazing place was Machu Picchu in Peru. It was my wife's dream since she was eight to see Machu Picchu and I cherish the fact that I could share that experience with her.
What is your favorite food?
I am Filipino and our food is a social experience. Filipino food draws from Spanish and Asian influences.
What is the last book that you read?
Grit by Angela Duckworth
What is your life motto?
Live to your fullest, love to your greatest capacity, work your hardest, and be a good person.
Find out more about the MossRehab Institute for Brain Health.