From the 19 July 2010 Lockport Union Sun and Journal (Lockport, NY)

By Bob Confer

The Obama Administration recently made a welcome change to the military’s approach to the recognition of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). For years, the burden was on the soldier to provide a ridiculous amount of detailed proof regarding the occurrence of an incident in the battlefield that would haunt his psyche years after the fact. Now, thanks to the President, benefits for PTSD can be claimed if, one, the soldier participated in assignments that had the potential to subject him to a traumatic event and, two, a single Veterans Affairs doctor indicates that the soldier is suffering from PTSD.

This is in response to the high-number of PTSD sufferers who now represent a fifth of the veterans returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. With the uber-tough military mindset exemplified by General Patton’s infamous and calloused soldier-slapping incident a thing of the past, more and more soldiers are willing to admit PTSD. The stigma that our armed forces must be possessed of inhuman indestructibility has been lifted by even more by the Obama Administration and he should be commended for that.

At the same time, he should be pressed to commit himself, our military and the VA to addressing another war-related ailment of the mind, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). TBI garnered only scant mention in Obama’s recent weekly address, which is surprising considering that TBI has been recognized as the signature injury of the Global War on Terror by the VA, even more prevalent than PTSD. According to some estimates, 25 percent of all troops suffer from TBI and in March of last year it was said by the VA that 360,000 soldiers had been hit with TBI during their deployments in the Middle East.

Despite such high numbers, the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center treated only 70,000 patients last year. That’s because those warriors showed significant injury, be it brain tissue damage or bullets and shrapnel in the skull. The others who fell under the TBI umbrella remained mostly untreated because TBI is an invisible injury.

TBI is, as its name implies, the result of a trauma upon the brain, which can include the forceful, concussive blasts from explosions (This accounts for the heightened volume of TBI in our ongoing conflicts as our soldiers encounter so many roadside bombs and improvised explosives). The soldier survives the blast – or so his outward physical appearance shows – and is basically left alone for numerous reasons which include the medics’ attentiveness to the more life-threatening injuries of their peers or the soldier’s and his commanding officers’ lack of understanding of injuries that don’t show through bleeding, broken bones, loss of limbs and the like.

The TBI-affected soldier then goes on to live his life in a cloud, mostly temporarily but sometimes quite permanently. He may exhibit symptoms that concussion cases typically show, from cognitive issues to the inability to focus to memory loss to recurring headaches. If unaddressed, recurring TBI – or putting someone with TBI in action too soon - can result in irreversible brain injury and mental illness.

There are two ways to go about fixing – or at least tempering - this threat. First, the Armed Forces’ and VA’s medical units must be empowered to properly diagnose TBI and apply the treatment or limitations necessary to secure the trooper’s physical and mental well-being which may include rest and/or reassignment. Secondly, our forces must be properly equipped to protect themselves as best they can from explosive force. This would require the development of markedly-improved helmets to blunt the blasts, the use of helmet sensors that would raise a red flag concerning a traumatic event (already tested on some 7,000 helmets) and the manufacture of even-beefier military transport vehicles to protect its riders from roadside bombs.

All of this, though, demands a greater attention to the details of TBI and the recognition thereof by our entire military, from the Chief Commanding Officer all the way down to the newest enlistees.

It also demands the same from you as a citizen. As a sports fan, you’ve no doubt shown genuine concern for athletes who have suffered career ending TBI from repeated hits to the head in football and hockey. Why not take that concern and apply it to real heroes, not overpaid men playing a boy’s game but rather to men fighting a man’s war, sacrificing mind and body every waking moment? Be cognizant of what TBI means to your friends and family who are serving and make it a point to demand that our President and his administration devote the resources necessary to address TBI.