When Kimberly locked eyes with Dan at a bar, she knew immediately that she had met the man who would become her husband. She wasn’t looking – she was divorced and had decided to focus on her two young kids – but she looked into his ice-blue eyes and that was it.
She was right: Dan would become her husband. But the man she ended up marrying would be a very different Dan from the one she met that night in Knoxville in 1999.
About a year and a half after they met, Dan Bryant deployed to the Middle East immediately after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. He suffered a traumatic brain injury in an incident that killed everyone else around him. He had severe post-traumatic stress disorder upon his return.
“We were watching TV, and literally the moment the second plane hit, the phone rang with orders from the Air Force [that] he was to leave to the Middle East that night,” Kimberly Bryant told Know Your Value in an interview. “I took him to the airport, watched him go through the tunnel, and that was the last time I ever saw that person.”
Kimberly Bryant, a bubbly and “optimistic by nature” woman, recounted that final memory without a tear. Her voice didn’t quiver – even as she remembered the life-of-the-party Dan who is no more, or the way he returned with awful nightmares and screamed at her in public about something small, like wedding decorations.
Instead, she recalled with a steady voice how doctors and friends alike told her she didn’t have to go through with the wedding. How she married him anyway and went on to have three more children with him. How he gained 200 pounds over years of depression and anxiety. How, somehow, they got through the last 18 years together.
“You grow through what you go through,” said Kimberly Bryant, now an executive for Comcast’s Xfinity on Campus Mountain West Region. “Simple as that. Things happen in this life and you get to choose how you handle it.” If anyone knows about resilience, it’s her. Here’s what she learned:
Denial doesn’t solve the problem – but a list of possible solutions just might.
When Dan Bryant, a technical sergeant, returned from the Middle East, Kimberly Bryant didn’t even know he had been injured. They weren’t yet married, so she wasn’t informed by the military of the ordeal, and the couple had had an agreement that he wouldn’t share details.
“I was very adamant about that because I knew people who were in combat, and I didn’t want to know him that way because it would skew my perception,” Kimberly Bryant said. “He had nightmares, and he said, ‘I saw and did some bad things.’ I’m trying to be the emotional support but I’m not the one he can tell the literally gory details to. So I didn’t know what had happened.”
But over the months, even after they got engaged in the weeks after he came home, she knew that something was wrong with her partner – the man she knew as the huge heart, the calming presence, the one who’d sit and play tea party with the little girls in his life. Some days he barely got out of bed, and he was paranoid, irritable and quick to anger. It came to a head during a meeting with the wedding planner, when Dan Bryant suddenly screamed at her about decorations.
“Finally, I was like, ‘I cannot help you if I don’t know what’s wrong,’ and he finally allowed me to go to the VA [doctor] with him and I found out he had suffered a [traumatic brain injury],” Kimberly Bryant said. “In Operation Enduring Freedom, he and his team needed to secure an area where there was a suspicious tractor trailer. They were given the all-clear, but when they opened the door, the tractor exploded. Everyone, six other people, were killed except Dan Bryant. The cab landed on him and broke his neck as well as other bones, and that’s where the brain injury was sustained.”
Kimberly Bryant was shocked and saddened, of course. But she was determined to get back “the old Dan, the old normal, the old life” ― something that would take her years to realize was a futile quest, though she helped him and her family make progress in the coming years.
“If you say ‘can’t’, it’s nails on a chalkboard to me; I will kill myself showing you it can be done,” Kimberly Bryant said. “I will make a list of things to try and I will keep adding to that list trying to come up with a solution.”
So she came home from her job in advertising at Comcast at lunch breaks to get Dan Bryant out of bed, which helped a bit. She told the VA that he was on too much medication and was “zombie-like,” and when he weaned off some of it she saw him really laugh for the first time since he’d left for the Middle East. And she began looking into areas of the country that might be better for him, discovering that Colorado had not only lots of days of sunshine but also a VA better equipped to help veterans with PTSD.
“I went to my manager at Comcast in Tennessee, word-vomited the whole situation and said I need a transfer or else I’m worried I’m going to get divorced,” Kimberly Bryant said. “He pulled up the job listings and found my exact job in Fort Collins, Colorado. I interviewed, got the job and we moved there within two weeks.”
You can’t control the situation, but you can choose how to react to it.
Moving to Colorado gave the Bryant family a fresh start in a lovely location, but of course it didn’t solve all of their problems. After one particularly bad day, Kimberly Bryant was sitting on the stairs sobbing when she suddenly had a breakthrough: She had been trying for years to get the man she once knew back. But what she needed to do was make their new life as positive as possible.
“I think because I’m an optimistic person, I felt like I was handling it well,” Kimberly Bryant said. “But I had internalized some of that victim mindset and gave all of myself over to the situation. I, and my family, needed to start participating in life again.”
Kimberly Bryant resolved to play softball again, a hobby she had loved but given up. She decided to start bringing the family on outings again, to picnics or bowling, and told her husband he could join them or not. They both got better at recognizing his triggers.
And Dan Bryant received care at Massachusetts General Hospital for both his brain injury and his PTSD, which Kimberly Bryant called “life-changing for him and for all of us, really.”
Turn your painful experience into your mission.
In addition to her Xfinity job, Kimberly Bryant also leads Comcast’s Veterans Network chapter in Colorado ― supporting veterans and their loved ones.
She’s a vocal and active advocate for caregiver support across the company, as well as supporting military members and veterans themselves through VetNet.
“Part of it too is about showing them their worth,” Kimberly Bryant said. “They might say, ‘A military man is who I am.’ And it’s like, ‘Well, no, you’re Dan Bryant.’ The military is something you did. It is your job, and it does not have to define who you are.”
“Grow through what you go through.”
“Big or small, I see challenges as an opportunity to grow and learn,” Kimberly Bryant said. “You can’t grow if you’re comfortable. Whether it’s negotiations at work or navigating tough situations socially, this has helped me be stronger mentally.
Kimberly Bryant hung a sign in the kitchen with the saying “Grow through what you go through,” and she hopes her children take it to heart.
“This is my purpose, my why,” she said. “I recognize that my value doesn’t come from other people, and that I can choose never to allow any situation to distract from who I am or my purpose in life.”
Disclaimer: Comcast is the parent company of NBC Universal. Know Your Value is part of NBC News.