Military Brain Injuries Didn’t Originate in Iraq
While the heightened concern about head injuries suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan is a great step, the emphasis on TBI being the signature wound of those wars is completely misses the issue as to how big of a problem head injury has been throughout combat.
The irony of that is shown by this story which talks about a loophole for those who suffered a brain injury between 2005 and 2007. But weren’t German, Japanese, Russian bombs and artillery just as dangerous as roadside bombs?
In a front page story, USA Today this week reported that a record number of concussions were diagnosed in U.S. soldiers who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq last year.
The article attributed that rise in concussions, an average of 16 a day sustained last spring, to more diligent efforts on the military’s part to detect this kind of brain injury, which has been dubbed the signature wound of Afghanistan and Iraq.
But the real question, it turns out, is what happens to the soldiers who suffered undetected concussions during the years when the military wasn’t trying to diagnose them out in the field?
Concussions have become increasingly common because in Afghanistan, the weapon of choice against our foot patrols is the buried explosive device. Even if a soldier isn’t directly hit by shrapnel, the shock wave that emanates when a bomb explodes can injure the brain.
The Army has only recently become more aggressive in trying to detect concussions, and that has some experts and lawmakers concerned. It wasn’t until 2010 that the Pentagon mandated that any soldiers who were near a bomb when it went off should be pulled aside and run through rudimentary exams to see if they are exhibiting any signs of a concussion, such as headaches and dizziness. If they are, they are not allowed to go back to combat until those symptoms go away.
From 2005 to 2007, when combat deaths and casualties were much worse than they were last year, the military was lax in checking to see if a soldier had suffered a concussion, USA Today pointed out. So the fear is that there are many soldiers who were in combat during that period and suffered concussions, but never received treatment.
This issue, which USA Today raised, caught the attention of U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr, D-N.J., co-founder and co-chair of the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force. On Thursday Pascrell wrote a letter to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta calling for soldiers who served before 2010 to be identified, tested and treated.
“The reported ‘aggressive efforts’ in diagnosing traumatic brain injury by the U.S. military is a direct result of the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force’s years of tenacious insistence that the Pentagon honor the nation’s contract with our soldiers,” Pascrell said in a statement. “They are willing to give everything they can for us, and we have an obligation to do everything we can to take care of them.”
He added, “I applaud the U.S. Department of Defense for reinvigorating its diagnostic efforts, which will help minimize the number of soldiers with TBI that fall through the cracks without being treated. I urge Defense Secretary Panetta to follow through with these efforts by seeing that every soldier receive proper TBI screening, including those who may have been injured before 2010.”
In his letter to Panetta, Pascrell noted that the USA Today story said that the Pentagon now requires that any soldier located within 50 feet of a blast be examined for signs of concussion.
“I believe this standard has helped identify mild TBI (traumatic brain injury) quickly and effectively, and served as a step forward,” Pascrell wrote.
“Despite this progress, I remain concerned that soldiers who could have been injured in theater before this policy took affect in June 2010 could continue to fall through the cracks,” he wrote. “Many of these soldiers remain on active duty. We must ensure they are tested and treated.”
Pascrell noted that last year he proposed an amendment to the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act that would mandated that the Defense Department report to Congress on its plans to “identify, refer and treat service members who may have a TBI and who have slipped through the cracks prior to the June 2010 policy.” But that amendment didn’t ultimately make it.
And that is why Pascrell is asking Panetta to follow through. And so he should.