Brain Trauma in War

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Brain Trauma in War: 'It Is the Black Box of Injuries'

The injuries sustained by thousands of U.S. troops are obvious: missing limbs, scarred faces, burned flesh.

But other injuries have proved difficult to detect, even by the victims, and can be even harder to treat.

Because of the enemy's frequent use of "improvised explosive devices" in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. troops have sustained traumatic brain injuries at an alarming race. Thankfully, there has been a decline IED detonations, but the military and its doctors are still trying to cope with the aftereffects of brain injuries.

"It is the black box of injuries," Dr. Alisa D. Gean, the chief of neuroradiology at San Francisco General Hospital and a traumatic brain injury expert who spent time treating soldiers at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, told The New York Times.

"We're at the tip of the iceberg of understanding it. It is one of the most complicated injuries to one of the most complicated parts of the body."

It's fitting, then, that the federal government has increased funding for treatment and research of traumatic brain injury and, last week, announced an increase in disability benefits for veterans with such injuries.


The Times cited the case of former Staff Sgt. Kevin Owsley, an Indiana reservist, as typical of a growing number of combat veterans. In Iraq in 2004, a roadside bomb exploded about a yard from Owsley's Humvee.

He didn't lose consciousness then - or six weeks later when a rocket-propelled grenade detonated and threw him across a road. So, Owsley did what many soldiers have done and continue to do: He went back to work.

As Owsley began to experience headaches, dizzy spells, a persistent ringing in his ears and numbness in his right arm, he blamed it on fatigue and dehydration.

More than three years later, however, Owsley struggles with memory loss, wears a hearing aid, cannot bear sunlight on his eyes, succumbs to nightmares and considers four hours of sleep a night a gift.

The problems affected not only Owsley, but his family, and ability of both the family and the individual to carry on:

"We were at the point of getting ready to lose the house and the cars," he said. "Then you start planning out things. I was planning to do suicide and make it look like an accident so my family would get the insurance."

Many who experience minor traumatic brain injury as a result of bomb blasts recover within hours, days or several months and require little, if any, medical assistance.

But tens of thousands of others have longer-term problems that can include, to varying degrees, persistent memory loss, headaches, mood swings, dizziness, hearing problems and light sensitivity.

More than 22,000 veterans are compensated for traumatic brain injuries - 6,000 of them veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.


The departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs are paying closer attention. Last year, the Pentagon opened the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, a clearinghouse for treatment, training, prevention, research and education.

This year it is spending a record $300 million on research into traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Last week, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced that it plans to substantially increase disability benefits for veterans with mild traumatic brain injuries.

Currently, veterans with symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, sensitivity to light, ringing in the ears and irritability and insomnia collect $117 a month in benefits.

Under the new plan, compensation couldreach $600 a month. After it takes effect in 30 days, the new regulation will benefit between3,500 and 5,000 veterans a year, the department said.

It estimated the changes would cost an extra $120 million through 2017. Sadly, this is another cost of war, and it pales in comparison to $700 billion for bailing out banks and investment houses.

Whatever the comparison, it's a small price to pay to those who live with the wounds they sustained on our behalf.

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