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Soldiers With Brain Trauma Denied Purple Hearts, Adding Insult to Injury

Army commanders have routinely denied Purple Hearts to soldiers who have sustained concussions in Iraq.

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Yet only one soldier in the trailer, who suffered shrapnel wounds in the attack, received the medal. The other men have been turned down by senior commanders.

Hopkins received a form letter telling him that his documentation was not sufficient. The letter did not tell him what documents he was missing or exactly why he was denied.

"I'm over there. I'm doing what I'm supposed to do. I'm giving everything that I'm supposed to," said Hopkins. "But I feel I'm not getting that same thing in return." Hopkins had splitting headaches and trouble walking for days after the explosion. He still forgets details today. He repeats himself in conversation, forgetting what he told his wife moments ago. Not getting a Purple Heart, he said, "That's a big slap in the face."

Like many soldiers who suffered a concussion, Junge has trouble remembering details of what happened after the explosion. He believes a medic might have given him headache medication, but has no documentation of the treatment.

Nor has Junge received rehabilitation or other treatment for ongoing mental difficulties. A former B-2 bomber mechanic, he sometimes struggles with simple tasks, such as building a tree house for his kids. He gets irritated easily. He forgets details and the names of common household items.

Junge said he didn't see a doctor because he wanted to keep leading his unit.

"As a soldier, you're expected to be a certain level of tough. It's across the board from top to bottom. If it's not a visible injury, it's kind of looked as a non-injury," he said. "For soldiers, it's like, are you a puss?"

For the families of soldiers with mild traumatic brain injuries, the Purple Heart is sometimes the only outward sign of the serious internal trauma endured by their loved ones.

"He thinks nothing is wrong. And it's like, I'm married to a totally different person," said Holly Junge, Derrick's wife, breaking down in tears as she spoke. "That's scary."

Junge is scheduled to deploy back to Afghanistan later this month.

If You're Not Bleeding, It's Not Serious

Congress, the military and veterans groups have wrestled for decades over how to define which injuries are worthy of the Purple Heart.

After the 1989 invasion of Panama, a debate erupted when a soldier received the medal for heat stroke. Two years ago, an Army psychologist raised a furor by suggesting that the Purple Heart should be given to soldiers suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

The Pentagon specifically banned giving the award for the disorder, saying that PTSD is a secondary effect not directly caused by the enemy. The decision remains controversial.

Mild traumatic brain injuries, however, are not supposed to be part of the debate. For at least 50 years, military regulations have recognized concussions as an injury meriting the Purple Heart.

But now, in wars in which roadside bombs are the enemy's best weapon and with tens of thousands of soldiers suffering mild traumatic brain injuries, some military officials argue that giving the Purple Heart for concussions would lessen its value, according to sources and internal documents reviewed by NPR and ProPublica.

Mild traumatic brain injuries have become more common in Iraq and Afghanistan because of insurgents' heavy use of explosive devices and armor which has better protected soldiers from life-threatening injuries.

In late 2007, Col. Edward Neely, an Army neurologist then serving in Iraq, sent an impassioned e-mail to a group of fellow medical officers with the subject line "More Purple Hearts for Those Who Deserve It."

 
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