Aftershock: The Ticking Time Bomb of Soldiers' Traumatic Brain Injuries
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The concussions marked only the beginning of the men's problems. Aftershocks from the blast would ripple through each of their lives differently, mirroring the spectrum of psychic and physical outcomes that doctors have begun to catalog. Of the five men injured that night, three remain in the Army and are currently deployed to overseas war zones. One recovered quickly, though he continues to suffer occasional severe headaches. Two recuperated more gradually but complain of forgetfulness and problems concentrating. A fourth left the military, tired of the violence and still grappling with concussion symptoms.
Savelkoul struggled the most to return to the person he had been before. On that night last September, his troubles transformed from academic data point to terrifyingly real confrontation. All the Army's men, all its research, all its treatments, had failed to prevent the desperate showdown that would unfold on a deserted stretch of highway just south of the pinched hills of the Dakota badlands. Now the outcome depended on one distraught man and a half-dozen nerve-wracked police officers, trying to negotiate a battlefield of the mind that none of them -- no one in the world, really -- understood.
An Unremarkable Blast
In the violence of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was an unremarkable attack on an unremarkable day.
On the night of Jan. 16, 2009, several soldiers were hunched around a small television screen in a trailer at Camp Liberty, a sprawling base just outside of Baghdad. The men of Psycho platoon, Hell Raisers Battery, 1-7 Field Artillery of the famed 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One, had arrived in Iraq from Fort Riley, Kan., in October 2008. They were on their second or third tours. After spending most of the day patrolling a nearby Iraqi village, they decided to unwind by playing "Call of Duty 4," a video game that allows players to act as U.S. Marines fighting in an unspecified Middle Eastern country. Subtitled "Modern Warfare," the game's scenes are harrowingly similar to the conflict in Iraq, with patrols down narrow streets of dun-colored buildings, sudden explosions and attacks by hidden enemies. "It sounds strange, but it's how we relaxed," said Staff Sgt. Derrick Junge, a muscular Illinois native with a shaved head and a fondness for reading Virgil, John Milton and Charles Dickens.
At about 8 p.m., the men heard the warning klaxon of the Phalanx, an antimissile system designed to destroy incoming mortar and artillery rounds by spraying bullets into the sky. The men continued playing "Call of Duty." Rocket attacks were common. The insurgents aimed so poorly that they rarely posed a danger. Seven minutes after the first warning, a second sounded. One man remembered that a fellow player, referring to the video game, called out "He's got a grenade!" Then, chaos enveloped the men.
Staff Sgt. James Hopkins, a Missouri native with a slight build, sharp face and a love of Red Vines candy, was sitting on his bed in a room next door to the rest of the men. He was talking to his wife on Skype. The blast force threw him to the floor. "It was just loud and thunderous. The living quarters actually shook. It was like if I were to stand next to the biggest Fourth of July explosion ever."
Spc. Jared Hollingshead was standing when the blast hit. The stocky Texan remembered "a bright flash of light, a very loud bang and everything goes blank after that. It was the most heart-wrenching thing you'll ever go through. It feels like your whole body clamps up. It's beyond words. It's utter terror."