Soldiers With Brain Trauma Denied Purple Hearts, Adding Insult to Injury
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Neely said some senior medical officials opposed giving out the Purple Heart for invisible injuries. He said one fellow medical officer -- whom he did not identify -- told him that he feared creating "another John Kerry" by giving out the Purple Heart for concussions.
During the 2004 presidential campaign, some political opponents mocked Sen. Kerry, D-Mass., the Democratic nominee, for receiving three Purple Hearts for shrapnel wounds he got during the Vietnam War, which critics deemed too minor to deserve recognition. In the last of these actions, Kerry also received a Bronze Star.
"We need to give these troops" the Purple Hearts "they rightly deserve," Neely wrote.
Neely declined to comment for our story. But a fellow officer said that "no more John Kerrys" became a catchphrase among some medical officers in Iraq who felt that mild traumatic brain injuries were not serious enough to merit Purple Hearts.
The officer, who did not want to be named for fear of damaging his career, said commanders often relied on technicalities to block awards. For instance, the military defines a "medical officer" as a physician with officer rank. That means that soldiers treated by nurses or combat medics would not necessarily qualify.
"They were trying to find ways not to give the Purple Heart," the official said. "There was a lot of semantics going on."
Russell, the Army neuropsychologist, and Col. Rodney Coldren, an Army epidemiologist, alluded to this attitude at the 2009 National Academy of Neuropsychology conference. They told the audience that the Purple Heart "clouds everything" in diagnosing concussions in the field.
Coldren, who traveled to Iraq in 2009 to study testing for mild traumatic brain injuries, said he found "vast under-diagnosis" of concussions, and not just because electronic reporting systems were failing.
"Another issue we found in Iraq as far as under-diagnosis is the issue of the Purple Heart," Coldren said, according to a transcript of his remarks obtained by NPR and ProPublica. "There was a push by higher level commanders to not be seen to be giving these out for just any old injury."
When contacted by NPR and ProPublica, both Coldren and Russell declined through spokesmen to comment on their remarks.
Veterans groups that focus on the Purple Heart support awarding it in cases of concussions, as the regulations spell out.
"A guy rolls over an IED and maybe the concussion isn't so bad, but he can't go back to work the next day," said John E. Bircher III, spokesman for the Military Order of the Purple Heart, a congressionally chartered veterans group. "He's entitled to a Purple Heart, (just like) the guy who gets hit by shrapnel and gets six stitches and goes back to work right away."
Other veterans groups expressed anger that soldiers with brain injuries were not being recognized for their wounds.
"It's an outrage," said Paul Sullivan, a former Department of Veterans Affairs official who now heads Veterans for Common Sense, an advocacy group. "What I'm afraid of is that the military intentionally is concealing casualties in order to conceal the enormous human costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan war."
Struggle for recognition
The system for awarding Purple Hearts can be opaque, especially for soldiers in war zones. They often do not get a response in writing, receiving only verbal notifications that they have been turned down. Even when they do get letters, the reason for denial can be vague, such as a lack of proper documentation.
NPR and ProPublica contacted more than a dozen officers to determine who, exactly, had turned down the Purple Heart applications of Scheller, Hopkins, Junge and other soldiers. The officers either did not comment, or said they could not recall the cases.