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Aftershock: The Ticking Time Bomb of Soldiers' Traumatic Brain Injuries

Soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are a generation of warriors whose fight has shifted from external combat zones to invisible internal battlefields.

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With a cell phone in one hand to communicate with one of Savelkoul's friends and a microphone in the other, Christopher never stopped the chatter and never left her position crouched behind the door of her patrol car. The cold cramped her hands. The sleet soaked her uniform. Over and over, she made a simple, emotional plea: She wanted to meet Savelkoul in person, alive and well. "Brock, I'd like to meet you. Put the gun down so we can meet," she said.

Finally, at about 9:30 p.m., more than three hours after the chase began, Savelkoul aimed his gun toward the open prairie and fired a round. Then, the videotape shows, he walked toward Christopher. After she promised to give him a cell phone if he put down the gun, he placed it at his feet. Christopher walked toward him, holding the cell phone in front of her, her own weapon holstered. Her voice broke as she neared him. "I'm kinda new at this. Sorry," she said. "I think I'm going to cry."

Suddenly, Savelkoul turned toward her. Two coiled, white wires unspool through the night air. Another officer, believing that Savelkoul was turning to attack, had fired his Taser, a weapon designed to shock a person into incapacitation. Savelkoul stiffened and fell to the ground. Police officers ran toward him from all sides, their knees on his back, arms, legs. They handcuffed Savelkoul. Christopher walked toward him and knelt. She put her hand to his cheek.

"I'm Megan," she said, "I'm glad I get to meet you."

New Mission

In November 2009, Lt. Col. Mike Russell presented his initial findings[18] involving Savelkoul and nearly 300 other soldiers at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Neuropsychology. His conclusion: The primary test the Army was using to evaluate whether soldiers had suffered concussions was "only slightly better than a coin toss." Another tool being deployed was even worse. The tests were fixable, Russell told the gathering, but the Army was still a long way from diagnosing and treating soldiers like Savelkoul and his buddies. "We did not design our health care system for mild traumatic brain injury," Russell told the audience. "There are a tremendous number of people who have concussions ... meet the diagnostic criteria for mild traumatic brain injury, that never seek professional attention."

Russell's work featured prominently in the Army's Surgeon General's testimony before Congress on problems at the military's top medical center for brain injury. The Army is working now to develop better tests. Russell has recently launched a follow-up investigation in which he hopes to re-evaluate the soldiers in his original study.

In October 2010, a few months after Congress learned of Russell's results, Staff Sgt. Derrick Junge redeployed to Afghanistan. Before he left, he visited a doctor for the first time since the January 2009 blast, discussing his troubles with short-term memory and concentration. The doctor recommended that he visit Fort Campbell's clinic for traumatic brain injury. Junge declined. "I told them to hold off. I didn't want it to keep me from deploying," he said. Last month, Junge survived another roadside explosion while on a convoy with his men in Paktika, a remote province in southern Afghanistan. He was checked by a medic, who cleared him to return to duty, said his wife, Holly. Junge, who has only occasional access to e-mail, could not be reached for details. Holly said that her husband continued to have problems with his memory. On a recent break, he suggested renewing their wedding vows. He asked her to write down his request in case he later forgot making it. "It's worrisome," she said. "I told him that as long as he doesn't forget my name and the kid's names, we're OK."

 
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