Soldiers With Brain Trauma Denied Purple Hearts, Adding Insult to Injury
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Soldiers turned down for the Purple Heart can appeal, but face a grinding administrative battle to reverse the decision.
If they have no documentation of their wounds, they must find witnesses and gather sworn statements, an especially daunting task for those who have cognitive deficits as a result of brain injuries.
After surviving two roadside blasts in Iraq in 2008, Capt. Jonathan Brooks fought for 14 months to receive a diagnosis confirming that he had suffered a concussion that resulted in lingering symptoms.
His wife, Jayna Moceri Brooks, decided to apply for a Purple Heart. The process was so complex that she co-founded a group, Recognize the Sacrifice, to help other soldiers apply for the medal.
In some cases, soldiers she is helping have spent more than two years working through the appeals process. (The Army Review Boards Agency still gets applications to honor soldiers injured in World War I and World War II.)
Brooks, a registered nurse who has worked in military hospitals, said the recognition was worth the effort.
"A Purple Heart medal would symbolize support from the Army and from the greater civilian community as we endure the frustrations and hardships of living with a (traumatic brain injury). It's pretty lonely without having that official recognition and support," Brooks said. "It's exhausting to have to fight and ask for everything ourselves."
Last year, Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., the co-chairman of the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force, demanded that the military explain how it decides whether soldiers with mild traumatic brain injuries are awarded the Purple Heart.
The military's report, delivered in June, noted that the Army and other service branches had different requirements. The Marine Corps, for instance, requires that a service member must have been knocked unconscious to receive the Purple Heart for mild traumatic brain injury.
Yet, according to an internationally accepted medical definition, a person can suffer a mild traumatic brain injury with or without a loss of consciousness.
Pascrell said he is pressing for consistent regulations regarding the Purple Heart. He called the military's report "unacceptable."
"There are people being overlooked because of the criteria being so vague," Pascrell said. "We have let too many of our soldiers fall through the cracks and it's not acceptable."
Michelle Dyarman is one of those soldiers. A major in the Army reserves, Dyarman was injured by two roadside bombs in Iraq in 2005. After years of fighting with the military, she was eventually diagnosed as having suffered a mild traumatic brain injury that caused lasting cognitive problems. Dyarman still has trouble concentrating, following directions and remembering words.
She is still fighting. Commanders have repeatedly denied her application for a Purple Heart, sending her into a bureaucratic maze. The Purple Heart, she said, would prove to everyone what she already knows: She sacrificed for her country.
"I know I'm not the only one it happened to," she said. "It's very frustrating. It's very disappointing."
T. Christian Miller is a senior reporter for ProPublica. He is the author of 'Blood Money: Wasted Billions, Lost Lives, and Corporate Greed in Iraq.' Daniel Zwerdling has been an investigative reporter for NPR since 1980. He has won the DuPont, Peabody, Edward R. Murrow and Robert F. Kennedy awards for investigative journalism.