Rusty Ouart came home with a psychiatric diagnosis last year.
On the heels of a Baghdad blast that riddled his arms with shrapnel, the Fargo National Guardsman spent eight months at a Washington military medical facility. Doctors said psychological trauma caused his persistent symptoms.
But Ouart and his family refused to believe it was all in his head.
His quest for treatment took the 45-year-old father of three to a New Orleans-area facility where he and other veterans breathed in 100 percent oxygen in a sealed room. The treatment, once reserved for divers suffering from "the bends," has caught the eye of the military as a promising option for injured soldiers.
Now in the midst of his second round of treatment, Ouart flew back to Fargo for a fundraiser that has rallied his friends.
"We've found there are so many good people out there," says Ouart's wife, Marilyn.
Ouart knew he wanted to join the military as soon as he saw footage of the 9/11 attacks. He enlisted in 2006, the year the Army raised the age limit for joining from 35 to 42. He was 41. He had lost more than 70 pounds to meet fitness requirements.
"I did it for the innocent lives that were lost on 9/11," says Ouart, who ran an office furniture business. "I was just one of many people who said, 'This is not right.' "
Ouart's first tour of duty ended with a May 2008 bomb blast. At Fort Lewis Army Base near Tacoma, staff struggled to diagnose him as he suffered debilitating headaches, vertigo, short-term memory loss and constant fatigue.
Doctors settled on conversion disorder - a cluster of unexplained symptoms brought on by stress.
"They just wanted to have him all processed and sent home," says Melissa Seitz, Ouart's volunteer patient advocate. "They'd worked on his diagnosis for eight months."
His symptoms hounded him after he reunited with his family. Doctors at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center and MeritCare Hospital in Fargo said symptoms suggested traumatic brain injury. Then, Marilyn read a piece about Dr. Paul Harch's hyperbaric clinic in a newsletter.
Hyperbaric therapy involves the inhalation of 100 percent oxygen in a special chamber, sending the gas to oxygen-starved ailing tissue and stimulating healing. It's used in patients with diabetes, crush injuries, stroke and cerebral palsy.
The Air Force is studying whether the therapy works for service members with brain injuries.
Harch's clinic was conducting a similar trial at the time, and within weeks, Ouart was in Louisiana.
A first round of treatments, Ouart's family says, yielded noticeable results: fewer spells of vertigo, a reprieve from the headaches, smoother speech. His doctor recommended a second round.
Ouart's initial treatments were covered by a grant, but when he traveled south in January, the family was on its own for the 40 treatments, at $200 each.
Hence, a fundraiser this Saturday featuring a free-will dinner, auction and a 5k run. Support has been overwhelming.
One of Ouart's former wrestling opponents from his Frazee High School days donated frequent-flier miles so Ouart could return for his benefit.
Dan Daly, a retired New York City fire battalion chief turned motivational speaker, flew in for the event.
Ouart met Daly on a visit to New York last year and got a special tour of ground zero, where Daly was a first responder on 9/11.
"Dan was so touched by Rusty's story," says Ouart's sister-in-law Darla Willoughby, "he offered to come out and help."