Epidemic: Over 400,000 Traumatic Brain Injuries for Vets Coming from Iraq and Afghanistan
"We are facing a massive mental health problem as a result of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a country we have not responded adequately to the problem. Unless we act urgently and wisely, we will be dealing with an epidemic of service related psychological wounds for years to come." -- Bobby Muller, President Veterans for America
"The multiple nature of it [multiple tours and longer deployments] is unprecedented. People just get blasted and blasted and blasted." -- Maj. Connie Johnmeyer, 332nd Medical Group
According to official Defense Department (DOD) figures, 332,000 soldiers have suffered brain injuries since 2000, although most independent experts estimate that the number is over 400,000. Many of these are mild traumatic brain injuries (mTBI), a term that is profoundly misleading.
As David Hovda, director of the Brain Injury Research Center at the University of California at Los Angeles, points out, "I don't know what makes it 'mild,' because it can evolve into anxiety disorders, personality changes, and depression." It can also set off a constellation of physical disabilities from chronic pain to sexual dysfunction and insomnia.
MTBI is defined as any incident that produces unconsciousness lasting for up to a half hour or creates an altered state consciousness. It is the signature wound for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where roadside bombs are the principal weapon for insurgents.
Most soldiers recover from mTBI, but between five and 15 percent do not. According to Dr. Elaine Peskind of the University of Washington Medical School, "The estimate of the number who returned with symptomatic mild traumatic brain injury due to blast exposure has varied from the official VA [Veterans Administration] number of 9 percent officially diagnosed with mTBI to over 20 percent, and, I think, ultimately it will be higher than that."
Serious consequences from mTBI are increased when troops are subjected to multiple explosions and "just get blasted and blasted and blasted," in the words of Maj. Connie Johnmeyer. Out of two million troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, over 800,000 have had multiple deployments, many up to five times or more.
But mTBI is difficult to diagnose because it does not show up on standard CAT scans and MRIs. "Our scans show nothing," says Dr. Michael Weiner, professor of radiology, psychiatry and neurology at the University of California at San Francisco and director of the Center for Imaging Neurodegenerative Disease at the Veteran's Administration Medical Center.
They do now.
An MRI set to track the flow of water through the brain's neurons, has turned up anomalies that indicate the presence of mTBI. However, the military has blocked informing patients of results of the research, and if history is any guide, the Pentagon will do its best to shelve or ignore the results.
The DOD has long resisted the diagnosis of mTBI, as it has avoided paying for a successful - but expensive - way to treat it. The price of that resistance is escalating suicide rates and domestic violence incidents among returning soldiers. In 2010, almost as many soldiers committed suicide as fell in battle.
MTBI is hardly new. Some 5.3 million people in the U.S. are currently hospitalized or in residential facilities because of it, and its social consequences are severe.
A Mt. Sinai Hospital study of 100 homeless men in New York found that 80 percent of them had suffered brain trauma, much of it from child abuse. A study of 5,000 homeless people in New Haven discovered that those who had suffered a blow that knocked them unconscious or into an altered state were twice as likely to have alcohol and drug problems and to be depressed. It also found mTBI injuries were correlated with suicide attempts, panic attacks, and obsessive-compulsive disorders. And a recent study by Dr. Elaine Peskind of the University of Washington School of Medicine found that mTBI is a risk factor for developing Alzheimer's disease.