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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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"It's our belief that we need to document everyone who sustained a concussion," she said. "It's for the benefit of the Army and the benefit of the family and the soldier to get treatment right away."

Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army's second in command, acknowledged that the military has not made the progress it promised in diagnosing brain injuries.

"I have frustration about where we are on this particular problem," Chiarelli said.

Fundamentally, he said, soldiers, military officers and the public needed to take concussions seriously.

"We've got to change the culture of the Army. We've got to change the culture of society," he said, adding later, "We don't want to recognize things we can't see."

Skeptics

The shift Chiarelli envisions may be impossible without buy-in from senior military medical officials, some of whom are skeptical about the long-term harm caused by mild traumatic brain injuries.

One of Schoomaker's chief scientific advisors, retired Army psychiatrist Charles Hoge, has been openly critical of those who are predisposed to attribute symptoms like memory loss and concentration problems to mild traumatic brain injury.

In 2009, he wrote a opinion piece in the New England Journal of Medicine that said the "illusory demands of mild TBI" might wind up hobbling the military with high costs for unnecessary treatment. Recently, Hoge questioned the importance of even identifying mild traumatic brain injury accurately.

"What's the harm in missing the diagnosis of mTBI?" he wrote to a colleague in an April 2010 e-mail obtained by NPR and ProPublica[9] . He said doctors could treat patients' symptoms regardless of their underlying cause.

In an interview, Hoge said, "I've been concerned about the potential for misdiagnosis, that symptoms are being attributed to mild traumatic brain injury when in fact they're caused by other" conditions. He noted that a study he conducted, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, "found that PTSD really was the driver of symptoms. That doesn't mean that mTBI isn't important. It is important. It's very important."

Other experts called Hoge's posture toward mild TBI troubling.

To be sure, brain injuries and PTSD sometimes share common symptoms and co-exist in soldiers, brought on by the same terrifying events. But treatments for the conditions differ, they said. A typical PTSD program, for instance, doesn't provide cognitive rehabilitation therapy or treat balance issues. Sleep medication given to someone with nightmares associated with PTSD might leave a brain-injured patient overly sedated, without having a therapeutic effect.

"I'm always concerned about people trivializing and minimizing concussion," said James Kelly, a leading researcher who now heads a cutting-edge Pentagon treatment center for traumatic brain injury. "You still have to get the diagnosis right. It does matter. If we lump everything together, we're going to miss the opportunity to treat people properly."

At her family farm outside Hanover, Pa., Michelle Dyarman has a large box overflowing with medical charts, letters and manila envelopes. They are the record of her fight over the past five years to get diagnosis and treatment for her traumatic brain injury.

After her last roadside blast in Baghdad, which killed two colleagues, Dyarman wound up at Walter Reed for treatment of post-traumatic stress.

Over the course of two and a half years, she received drugs for depression and nightmares. She got physical therapy for injuries to her back and neck. A rehabilitation specialist gave her a computer program to help improve her memory.

But it wasn't until she began talking with fellow patients that she heard the term mild traumatic brain injury. As she began to research her symptoms, she asked a neurologist whether the blasts might have damaged her brain.