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Traumatic Brain Injury and the Military
Unfortunately, those who choose to serve their country run a comparatively high risk of traumatic brain injury. Military personnel are at risk for automobile accidents, the number-one civilian cause of TBI, but they are also consistently exposed to strong munitions that can cause a traumatic brain injury. Military service exposes personnel to a risk of penetrative brain damage, such as that sustained when a bullet or shrapnel penetrates the skull. But the greater cause of TBI among soldiers is closed brain injury, in which there is no break in the skull, particularly those caused by explosive blasts. When soldiers are caught near an explosion, they may sustain brain damage directly from the blast wave, which can increase pressure inside the skull; or indirectly from being physically thrown against a hard object.
Afghanistan, Iraq Conflicts a Major Risk Factor for Traumatic Brain Injury
We now know those who have served in Afghanistan or Iraq are at a much higher risk of TBI than combat veterans from previous wars. In the Vietnam War, 14 to 18 percent of all veterans had a brain injury. Today, the Walter Reed Army Medical Center says 31 percent of those admitted between January 2003 and May 2005 had some kind of brain injury. A 2005 study in the New England Journal of Medicine attributed these higher numbers in part to advancements in munitions, especially improvised explosive devices, and in part to improvements in body armor, which protects soldiers from what would previously have been a fatal penetrative wound, but not from a nonfatal blast injury.
Misdiagnosed/Undiagnosed Traumatic Brain Injury in Soldiers
Because the symptoms of a traumatic brain injury often do not appear until weeks after the injury is sustained, it is not uncommon for a TBI to go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. This is especially true when the symptoms of a TBI are subtle, such as a personality change or emotional problems, which are easy for strangers to miss. There is evidence that the military sometimes misdiagnoses such symptoms as psychological, or even accuses soldiers of malingering, due in part to doctors' lack of resources or brain-injury expertise.
And as Commander James Dunne, lead trauma surgeon at the National Naval Medical Center, observed at a 2006 summit of military physicians, the long-term consequences of an undiagnosed TBI can be devastating. Service members with an undiagnosed TBI lose precious treatment time, holding back their recoveries and causing complications in their personal lives. Because side effects of a traumatic brain injury include behavioral and emotional problems, especially depression, TBIs can hold discharged soldiers back from reintegrating into civilian society or even from continued success in the armed services.
A 1996 medical study showed that a behavior-related discharge from the military was 1.8 times more likely for a TBI patient than for a soldier without a TBI. Difficulties with memory, motor skills and the senses, more common side effects of brain damage, can also affect veterans' ability to get a job, care for a family or perform other life functions. And without a diagnosis, military TBI patients may be liable for tens of thousands of dollars' worth of medical bills, on top of lost wages.
Proper helmets and body armor, particularly the newest Kevlar armor, remain the best way to prevent a traumatic brain injury among those who serve in the military. Fast diagnosis and treatment of the injury are also important ways to prevent secondary injuries from the physical and chemical changes to the brain that follow a TBI, such as swelling. It can also minimize the cost, both personal and financial, of the injury to the soldier and his or her loved ones. If you suspect that you or someone you care about has an undiagnosed service-related brain injury, an experienced TBI attorney can help you get the treatment and compensation you need.