It's been 54 years since Navy storekeeper Richard Fournier was knocked on the head and robbed by three Marines in Honolulu — an assault that left him with a lifetime of psychological and physical problems.
Fournier, now 72, has a telltale dent in his skull and, according to medical imaging, small vessel disease in the frontal lobes and base of his brain. With that traumatic brain injury and related post-traumatic stress disorder, he is rated 100 percent disabled by the Veterans Affairs Department, has been unable to keep a job for any length of time, is impulsive, moody and, for more than 20 years after the incident, abused alcohol and drugs.
But during that time, he also founded a nonprofit aimed at educating the public on head injuries. And he now hopes his misfortune will eventually benefit science.
In August, Fournier filed paperwork to donate his brain to the VA's Leahy-Friedman National Brain Repository for PTSD, and he hopes other veterans will follow suit.
"This isn't just about studying PTSD," Fournier said. "It's about looking for clues and finding cures for a host of neurological diseases."
The VA's new PTSD brain bank and the Defense Department's brain tissue repository at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences are dedicated to studying neurological diseases common in troops and veterans, including concussion, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Parkinson's and epilepsy, as well as psychiatric disorders.
Researchers say that while they can learn from brain images, there's no substitute for examining the actual grey matter, neurons and white matter of the brain.
At a recent symposium on traumatic brain injury hosted by the VA in Washington, D.C., neuroscientists and research advocates made a plea for brain donations from troops and veterans, saying they cannot advance the study of the brain without samples.
Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist at Boston University who conducts research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy — a degenerative disease catalogued in amateur and professional athletes with multiple traumatic brain injuries — said there is evidence that CTE is prevalent in veterans exposed to blasts or with severe head injuries.
But without brain donations, more definitive data is lacking.
"What we really need is more veterans to donate their brains," McKee said.
Retired Army Gen. Peter Chiarelli, director of the brain research advocacy group One Mind For Research, said the Defense Department should take the lead in encouraging service members to consider donating their organs when they die.
"The VA should go to DoD to demand that they … give soldiers the opportunity to make a decision when they come into the Army to go ahead and offer their brains up, should they die," Chiarelli said.
He amended his comments to mean all service members, saying that as a former Army vice chief of staff, he can't help but refer to troops as soldiers.
Scientists are drawn to study the brains of troops and veterans because service members often experience concussions, also known as mild traumatic brain injury, in their jobs or recreational activities. Combat troops also have been exposed to blasts, which cause unique injuries and have long-term consequences not seen in other types of head injuries.
Chiarelli said that with the data VA and the Pentagon could derive from studying veterans' brains, the two departments could lead the way in advancing knowledge of, and treatment for, neurodegenerative diseases, neurodevelopment disorders, neurological conditions and psychiatric diseases.
It's in the best interests of the VA to unlock the mystery of the injured and aging brain, he noted.
"It's the VA that is going to have to pay the bill when we don't get answers," he said. "When I'm broken, it's not the DoD that's going to fix me, it's the VA."
Fournier said the process is easy, although when he first approached staff at the John Dingell VA Medical Center in Detroit, they were not familiar with the VA brain bank. He eventually received a contract, which he completed and mailed back to the brain bank in Vermont.
The former sailor said potential donors may have concerns about what happens to their organs after they are gone and wonder whether it will affect memorial services or cause stress to their families.
They should talk to their families, he said, and do research on the process before committing.
For him, though, the process is worth it.
"This is an altruistic thing," he said. "You can change the life of a future veteran by doing this."
Veterans with PTSD or those without who are interested in furthering the science of trauma-related mental health disorders by enrolling in the brain bank can call the center at 800-762-6609 or visit its website.
Those with traumatic brain injury or family members who want to contribute their loved ones' tissue can contact the repository through its website or email the center at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.