On Monday, May 27, Americans will observe Memorial Day, remembering all the veterans who sacrificed their lives to shield us from foreign threats and protect the liberties upon which our nation was founded. It is also a good time to remember all the veterans who are still with us, especially those whose war injuries have left a deep and devastating impact on their lives and the lives of their family members.
Many of the veterans returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from traumatic brain injuries (TBI), most of which have been brought about by concussive blasts from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) used by many terrorist groups. In fact, TBI has afflicted so many veterans that the U.S. Defense Department calls it the “signature wound” of the wars in the Middle East.
According to the Congressional Research Service, 253,330 servicemen and servicewomen have sustained a TBI since the beginning of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan through August 2012. Of those TBI cases, 194,561 were classified as mild, 42,063 as moderate, and 6,476 as severe or penetrating. The remainder (10,210) have not been clearly classified.
The sheer number, complexity, and the elusive nature of TBI have made these injuries a matter of national importance. The Defense Department has funded a number of studies and special projects devoted to increasing both our awareness of TBI and our understanding of brain injuries and how to treat them.
TBIs are caused by a blow to the head or a jolt to the body that results in a concussive force to the brain. Such blows can disrupt the normal function of the brain. In the case of concussion (mild TBI), the person may lose consciousness or they may feel dizzy, “see stars,” or experience some other alteration of their consciousness.
In the military, blasts, bullets, and fragments are the three leading causes of TBI for veterans, followed by falls, motor vehicle crashes and rollovers, sports, and assaults.
Because TBIs disrupt the normal functioning of the brain, they can take a physical toll as well as an emotional and cognitive one. Physical symptoms of TBI include headache, sleep disturbances, dizziness, balance problems, nausea and vomiting, fatigue, visual disturbances, light sensitivity, and ringing in the ears.
Cognitive symptoms include difficulty concentrating, gaps in memory, attention deficits, slowed thinking, and difficulty finding words, while the emotional toll of TBI on a victim typically manifests as irritability, anxiety, mood swings, and depression.
The sheer number of veterans afflicted by brain injuries has helped propel brain research and treatment headed by the Defense Department and a number of other public and private institutions and enterprises. In April, President Obama announced the creation of a brain-mapping initiative that, he said, could help “revolutionize our understanding of the human mind and uncover new ways to treat, prevent, and cure brain disorders like Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy, and traumatic brain injury.”
Called the BRAIN initiative (short for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies), the plan seeks to accelerate the invention of new technologies and open areas of study that could treat thousands of veterans with TBI while spawning other related industries and fueling economic growth.
A number of websites are available for military members and their families seeking information and support on TBI. The U.S. Department of Defense released a special report about TBI in April that includes a number of articles and links TBI sufferers may find useful. Likewise, the Defense and Veterans Brian Injury Center offers a number of valuable resources veterans who are living with and recovering from TBI.
Brainline Military, another resource-rich website with information about TBI as well as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), strives to keep veterans updated on the latest TBI diagnosis and treatment news. Finally, Trymunity, a new social networking website styled in the format of Facebook but geared toward TBI sufferers, helps those with brain injuries connect with others who share the same difficult path to recovery.