Military missing traumatic brain injuries in soldiers

Mar 23, 2011

For soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, one of the biggest threats has been IEDs, or Improvised Explosive Devices. When these bombs go off, they can do enormous physical damage. But they can also cause damage to the soldier that often goes undetected.

NPR's Daniel Zerdling and ProPublica conducted an investigation of Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs) in soldiers serving in the U.S. military.

In the series, Brain Wars, they found that "the military medical system is failing to diagnose brain injuries in troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom receive little or no treatment for lingering health problems."

We're beginning to learn more about the persistent debilitating effects of these brain injuries from studies of football and hockey players and other athletes involved in contact sports. These are unseen injuries. Injuries that, prior to our understanding of them, might have gotten a "shake it off, you just got your bell rung" response from a coach.

As it turns out, the military has been slow to understand the effects of these brain injuries as well.

To get a grasp of how these unseen brain injuries can affect somebody - watch this video of Sgt. Victor Medina who says, "sometimes I wonder if it would have been easier to get my leg blown off - you can see it.":

Fighting to receive treatment

Medina had to fight to get proper treatment - doctors just wanted to treat him with Tylenol.

ProPublica and NPR's Zwerdling interviewed top military medical officials and examined numerous military documents.

For its part, the military says they're working to improve diagnosing and treating traumatic brain injuries - it's a matter of "cultural transformation" they say.

But some soldiers wonder what's taking so long. From ProPublica:

Michelle Dyarman...a former major in the Army reserves, was involved in two roadside bomb attacks and a Humvee accident in Iraq in 2005.

Today, the former dean's list student struggles to read a newspaper article. She has pounding headaches. She has trouble remembering the address of the farmhouse where she grew up in the hills of central Pennsylvania.

For years, Dyarman fought with Army doctors who did not believe that she was suffering lasting effects from the blows to her head. Instead, they diagnosed her with an array of maladies from a headache syndrome to a mood disorder.

"One of the first things you learn as a soldier is that you never leave a man behind," said Dyarman, 45. "I was left behind."

NPR ran an in-depth piece by Daniel Zwerdling that chronicles the struggle of another soldier.

Iraq veteran Brock Savelkoul was medically discharged from the Army after serving three tours in Iraq.

He received a Purple Heart because of a wound to his leg, but it was the traumatic brain injury and PTSD he suffered from that led him to try to end his life. Savelkoul attempted "suicide by cop" - luckily, the police resisted:

You can listen story here.