Commentary

Debate over brain injuries in US military: A teachable moment

We should use the recent news coverage surrounding the Jan. 8 attack on a U.S. military base in Iraq as an opportunity to raise awareness about traumatic brain injuries. TBIs are serious and should never be dismissed as mere “headaches” or as trivial in comparison to other injuries.

Since 2008, when scientists began collecting post-mortem brain and spinal cord tissue to understand the effects of TBIs, research has provided significant insight into the effects of concussions, including their degenerative effects on people. These injuries, which can be caused by an explosion, or a bump, jolt or blow to the head, can result in a range of problems, including vision disturbances, balance problems, concentration and memory problems and headaches. There has also been considerable research on the effects of TBI on mental health, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide.

Fortunately, the 64 service members who were diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries after the retaliatory attack by Iran have gotten or are getting the medical attention they need. While more than half of them have returned to duty already, some are still being treated in Germany for additional care.

Reports from the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center show that more than 413,000 service members suffered traumatic brain injuries between 2000 and early 2019. While most of these injuries were considered mild, many were not. Having some of our leaders label TBIs as less serious than other injuries runs the risk of deterring service members from seeking the treatment they need.

Assessments for concussions involving traumatic events usually consist of neurological evaluations and tests of orientation, concentration and memory. These evaluations can also include mental health screenings. Treatment for service members includes periods of rest and limited duty until recovery.

My organization, the American Psychological Association, works to support military personnel and veterans, their families and their communities, as well as the psychologists who conduct neuropsychological evaluations and provide direct services to this population. We are not alone in these endeavors. Congress established a Center of Excellence, the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center in 1992, which focuses on the acute and long-term impacts of brain injuries, particularly concussive injuries.

In order to provide the best care to our current and future service members and veterans, we hope that Congress will continue to fund research on this issue through the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. As veterans of the current wars age, we need to ensure research into the long-term effects of these concussive injuries, so that we can better treat them. Additionally, we need to increase our understanding of the interactions of concussive and related mental health issues to more effectively treat both areas.

Our service members have sacrificed so much, and we need Congress to ensure that they have access to the medical care they need.

Shullman is president of the American Psychological Association.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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