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Army Doctors Tell Soldiers With Brain Injuries to 'Stop Complaining'

Despite the pledges of military leaders, brain trauma remains undiagnosed in tens of thousands of troops.

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Members of Congress responded by dedicating more than $1.7 billion to research and treatment of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress, a psychological disorder common among soldiers returning from war. They passed a law requiring the military to test soldiers' cognitive functions before and after deployment so brain injuries wouldn't go undetected.

But leaders' zeal to improve care quickly encountered a host of obstacles. There was no agreement within the military on how to diagnose concussions, or even a standardized way to code such incidents on soldiers' medical records.

Good intentions banged up against the military's gung ho culture. To remain with comrades, soldiers often shake off blasts and ignore symptoms. Commanders sometimes ignore them, too, under pressure to keep soldiers in the field. Medics, overwhelmed with treating life-threatening injuries, may lack the time or training to recognize a concussion.

The NPR and ProPublica investigation, however, indicates that the military did little to overcome those battlefield hurdles. They waited for soldiers to seek medical attention, rather than actively seeking to evaluate those in blasts.

The military also has repeatedly bungled efforts to improve documentation of brain injuries, the investigation found.

Several senior medical officers said soldiers' paper records were often lost or destroyed, especially early in the wars. Some were archived in storage containers, then abandoned as medical units rotated out of the war zones.

Lt. Col. Mike Russell, the Army's senior neuropsychologist, said fellow medical officers told him stories of burning soldiers' records rather than leaving them in Iraq where anyone might find them.

"The reality is that for the first several years in Iraq everything was burned. If you were trying to dispose of something, you took it out and you put it in a burn pan and you burned it," said Russell, who served two tours in Iraq. "That's how things were done."

To improve recordkeeping, medics began using pricey handheld devices to track injuries electronically. But they often broke or were unable to connect with the military's stateside databases because of a lack of adequate Internet bandwidth, said Nevin, the Army epidemiologist.

"These systems simply were not designed for war the way we fight it," he said.

In 2007, Nevin began to warn higher-ups that information was being lost. His concerns were ignored, he said. While communications have improved in Iraq, Afghanistan remains a concern.

That same year, clinicians interviewed soldiers about whether they had suffered concussions for an unpublished Army analysis, which was reviewed by NPR and ProPublica. They found that the military files showed no record of concussions in more than 75 percent of soldiers who reported such injuries to the clinicians.

Nevin said that without documentation of wounds, soldiers could have trouble obtaining treatment, even when they report they can't think, or read, or comprehend instructions normally anymore.

Doctors might say, "there's no evidence you were in a blast," Nevin said. "I don't see it in your medical records. So stop complaining."

Problems documenting brain injuries continue.

Russell said that during a tour of Iraq last year, he examined five soldiers the day after they were injured in a January 2009 rocket attack. The medical staff had noted shrapnel injuries, but Russell said they failed to diagnose the soldiers' concussions.

The symptoms were "classic," Russell said. The soldiers had "dazed" expressions, and were slow to respond to questions.

"I found out several of them had significant gaps in their memory," Russell said. "It wasn't clear how long they were unconscious for, but the last thing they remember is they were playing video games. The next thing they remember, they are outside the trailer."